A week after Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida, residents of one of its barrier islands will be allowed to return to view their homes Wednesday for the first time since the storm devastated the once tranquil community.
Ian wiped out a portion of the causeway connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland, setting the stage for days of evacuations by air and sea as crews searched for those who were stranded.
Sanibel Island residents returning to survey the damage to their community are in for a shock, said City Manager Dana Souza.
“It is going to be emotional when they see their properties up close and the amount of damage that this storm inflicted upon them,” Souza told CNN.
Houses that might look fine from the outside may still prove to be too damaged to live in, Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith said.
While residents will be given access to their property, the island is still “extremely unsafe,” Smith said.
“There are a lot of places that are not livable. There are places off their foundation, and it’s very dangerous out there,” Sanibel Fire Chief William Briscoe has said. “There are alligators running around, and there are snakes all over the place.”
Souza also described the devastation, saying most of the electrical poles and transmission lines are down, along with wastewater systems. “Without those necessary infrastructure, it is difficult to sustain a community of 7,000 people year around,” Souza added.
“It will be some time before we can resume normal life on Sanibel,” he said.
The island’s year-round population is about 7,000 people but it grows to 35,000 during the high season, which is about a month away, according to Souza.
It could take a month or longer to restore power to some areas of Sanibel and Pine islands, Karen Ryan, public relations director for Lee County Electric Cooperative, told CNN.
“It will be much easier to restore power once we can gain access to the island,” Ryan said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis directed transportation authorities to prioritize the repair of the Sanibel Causeway, which was damaged at several points during the storm.
“Access to our barrier islands is a priority for our first responders and emergency services who have been working day and night to bring relief to all Floridians affected by Hurricane Ian,” the governor said in a statement.
Days after the hurricane’s landfall, as decimated homes line the streets, residents are left grappling with losses.
As of Tuesday, at least 109 people have been reported killed by the hurricane in the United States, with 105 of those deaths in Florida.
It’s unclear how many people are still missing. Florida officials are working to consolidate a list of people who remain unaccounted for, Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said Monday.
So far, more than 2,300 rescues have been made statewide, DeSantis said during a news conference Tuesday. More than 1,000 urban search and rescue personnel have combed through 79,000 structures across Florida.
As search and rescue efforts continue, many residents are still in the dark.
More than 330,000 customers in Florida remained without power as of early Wednesday, according to PowerOutage.us. Many of the outages are in hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties.
In Charlotte County, north of Fort Myers, public schools will be closed until further notice after several of its 22 schools were damaged by Hurricane Ian.
“The storm lasted here for over 12 hours, just hammering away. Nothing is safe right now,” Charlotte County public schools spokesperson Mike Riley said.
Florida hospitals have also been struggling. Emergency departments sustained damage, staffing is impacted as many hospital workers have been displaced or lost their vehicles, and some facilities lost reliable access to water.
“We were ready, we had our generators all ready. We had plenty of fuel. What we couldn’t anticipate and didn’t anticipate was the loss of water from our utility companies,” said Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health.
Many areas remain under boil water notices since the storm made landfall, damaging critical infrastructure, as well as homes.
Residents of Lee and Charlotte counties – the two counties with the highest death tolls from the hurricane – will be able to get a temporary blue covering with fiber-reinforced sheeting for their roofs to help reduce further damage, according to a Charlotte County news release.
Meanwhile in Naples, hundreds of residents may not be able to get back in their homes for a period of time, City Manager Jay Boodheshwar, told CNN.
“There was a significant amount of homes, in fact, an entire neighborhood was submerged at least with three feet of water. Some areas got six to seven feet of water,” Boodheshwar said. “I would guess it’s probably hundreds of households that are going to be experiencing a period of time when they’re not going to be able to be in their homes.”
As rescue crews continue combing through wreckage for signs of life, some families are learning their loved ones didn’t survive.
Stacy Verdream told CNN she learned that her “funny and goofy and very smart” uncle, Mike Verdream, was among Ian’s victims.
Mike Verdream decided to ride out the hurricane in Matlacha and planned to go to his boss’ two-story home if things got too bad, his niece told CNN.
Stacy Verdream said her cousin spoke with him Wednesday, the day the hurricane made landfall, and he said the water was four feet deep before telling her he had to go.
“It was a very brief call because he said he was very scared and she’d never heard him like that, because he wasn’t that type of person. He’s always put on a brave face,” Stacy Verdream said. “But she said he sounded absolutely terrified.”
On Friday, the family was told that the uncle survived the storm and was helping people, Verdream said. They were told he was unable to call because his phone had gotten wet.
His niece said that made sense, at first, because her uncle was “very giving.”
“He would give you the shirt off his back, the last dime he had if someone was in need,” Stacy Verdream said. “Always worried about helping other people and not himself.”
As more time passed, they grew concerned that he hadn’t borrowed someone’s phone or found another way to get in touch.
On Monday, the sheriff’s office informed the family that Verdream had died. His body had been found in a canal on Friday, she said.
Authorities had to use medical records to identify her uncle because his face was not recognizable, Stacy Verdream said.
“He was always there for me growing up, teaching me how to drive and taking me to the fair,” she said. “The cool uncle that would buy me like a dirt bike and bought the Jet ski for us to, like, go out on the lake. He just loved us to death.”