Florida beachfront paradise shattered by Hurricane Ian

Remains of destroyed restaurants, shops and other businesses are seen after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction, in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, U.S., October 4, 2022. REUTERS/Marco Bello

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian hammered southwest Florida, once tony Fort Myers Beach is a nearly deserted disaster zone where destroyed beach houses now mar the postcard views that made this stretch of the Gulf Coast famous.

The town on Estero Island facing the Gulf of Mexico was one of the communities hit hardest by the Category 4 hurricane, which killed more than 100 people in the state when it struck last week.

Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island that stands between the Gulf and the city of Fort Myers, has a population of 5,600, living in bungalows and posh multistory beach houses. Many retirees living here have second homes elsewhere in the United States.

The island’s soft, white sands and teal waves now make for a stark backdrop to rows of pastel storefronts that are missing walls and windows, a landmark pier stripped to its piles, crushed beach houses, and foundations swept entirely clean of the houses that once rested on them.

At one address, a set of concrete steps leads to nowhere. Furniture, plumbing fixtures and drywall are scattered everywhere.

Rescue teams directed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are conducting a second round of door-to-door checks for survivors, equipped with dogs and cameras on extending poles.

“It’s going to be a long recovery,” said Ignatius Carroll, a representative of Florida Task Force 2, a search-and-rescue unit that is part of FEMA’s efforts.

“See that debris from the house?” Carroll asks during a tour of Fort Meyers Beach, pointing to a home with its front yard piled high like a junkyard. “That came from another house over here.”

The first 48 hours after a disaster hits are critical to finding survivors, although many people in hurricane-prone areas stock 72 hours’ worth of food and water, Carroll said. Even so, it’s possible to find people days later than that, depending on their provisions, he said.

Steve Duello, 67, a retired grocery store executive from St. Louis, said he was devastated on Tuesday to see the damage to his Fort Myers Beach home for the first time since the hurricane hit.

His ruined house filled with 8 feet of water during the storm, and Duello said he’s unsure whether he’ll rebuild, even though he has been coming to the beach since he was 14.

“It’s way too early. Right now our guts have been torn out. I don’t want to ever go through that again.”

Fort Myers Beach “looks like Hiroshima or Nagasaki,” he said, referring to Japanese cities where U.S. forces dropped atomic bombs during World War Two.

Another island resident, who declined to give his name, stayed through the storm, and has no plans to leave.

“I love this place. I don’t want to live anywhere else but here,” said the elderly, deeply tanned man, wearing shorts and no shirt.

“My daughter wants to pick me up and go back to New York. I don’t want to go.”

More Stories