TAMPA, Fla. — Hurricane Ian bludgeoned its way through southwestern Florida on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms to ever strike the state, bringing fierce winds, unrelenting rains and drastic inundations to coastal communities that were overtaken by the surging waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Floridians braced for extensive and catastrophic damage around Fort Myers, near where Ian made landfall as a Category 4 storm, with winds up to 150 mph, at approximately 3:05 p.m. But a huge stretch of coastline from Naples to Sarasota appeared severely affected by lapping brown waves that drowned streets, cars and homes as frightened residents sought refuge.
The storm was so massive that almost the entire state faced warnings about its possible effects, with officials fearing widespread inland flooding — as much as 2 feet in some areas — and more storm surge along Florida’s Atlantic Coast on Thursday, when Ian is expected to cut diagonally across the peninsula. It is forecast to move offshore around Daytona Beach by Thursday evening, before turning north toward Georgia and South Carolina.
Ian will go down in history as one of the worst storms to hit the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, after the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Michael in 2018.
It will “rank as one of the top five hurricanes to ever hit the Florida Peninsula,” he said.
Authorities linked at least one death to the storm hours before landfall. More than 1.3 million customers were without electricity in the state by late afternoon.
Not since Hurricane Charley buzz-sawed through Southwest Florida in 2004, making landfall almost exactly where Ian did, had the densely populated, suburban communities around Fort Myers suffered a direct hit. But while the former was a compact, fast-moving storm that inflicted destruction mostly with its winds, the latter lumbered ashore with such sheer size that it dwarfed Charley.
In Lee County, which is home to Fort Myers, officials said they did not yet have a clear picture of the damage. But the county manager, Roger Desjarlais, said at a news briefing: “We are beginning to get a sense that our community has been, in some respects, decimated.”
The storm first made landfall on the barrier island of Cayo Costa, west of Fort Myers, and later on the mainland near Punta Gorda, about 25 miles north of Fort Myers.
The wind was so intense at Robert Goodman’s home in the Gulf Harbor neighborhood of Fort Myers that he and his son-in-law had to physically hold their sliding doors shut to keep it out. He was under a mandatory evacuation order but decided to stay.
“I don’t know what’s worse, being here for it or leaving. I’d be stressed out either way,” Goodman, 60, said, adding, “And the flooding hasn’t even started yet.”
Lilya Cattani, 40, rode out the storm with her husband and their two toddlers in South Fort Myers, in another area under mandatory evacuation orders. Water came in through the front door, she said, and was also blown in through their second-story windows.
“We have been trying to do everything we can to keep the kids entertained and not let them see how scared we are,” she said around the time the storm was making landfall.
Later in the afternoon, Cattani said by text that her and her husband’s cars were completely submerged in their garage, adding, “It’s an ocean around us.”
Videos showed storm surge in Fort Myers Beach reaching nearly to the roofs of some one-story homes, with streets turned into rivers. Just to the west, large swaths of the barrier island of Sanibel also appeared to be underwater.
Forecasters projected up to 18 feet of storm surge in some areas, although DeSantis said it might have peaked at 12 feet. Water levels in Naples reached more than 6 feet above normal high tide, a record. The previous record of 4.25 feet above high tide there was set in 2017 during Hurricane Irma, the storm that had most recently swamped the region.
The most vulnerable communities up and down the Gulf Coast had been under evacuation orders — which many, if not most, people seemed to heed. Even inland residents sought shelter: Busloads of farmworkers arrived at a high school in Plant City, Florida, east of Tampa, Wednesday morning, to escape their mobile homes.
Among the evacuees at another shelter was Arthur H. Hembree, 63, who has ridden out plenty of hurricanes in his nearly 50 years of living in Florida.
There was the one in the 1980s that he spent playing Nintendo in his trailer home as the water rose toward his doorstep. During Hurricane Charley, he cowered with his landlord’s Rottweiler, Chopper, in the back of a junkyard pickup. And in 2018, Hurricane Michael sent him scrambling for cover through the drive-up window of an old bank.
But when he heard how bad Ian might be, he decided his days of disregarding hurricane warnings were over. On Wednesday, he was one of more than 6,000 people who had arrived at shelters in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. Hembree, who is retired from a job cleaning oil tankers and uses a wheelchair, was staying at a shelter at Erwin Technical College that had been designated for people with special needs.
“I live two blocks from the Hillsborough River,” he said as he took a drag of a cigarillo outside the building. “We’re not going through this again.”
Instead of bringing storm surge to Tampa Bay — one of forecasters’ biggest fears when it comes to storms hitting Florida — Hurricane Ian pushed the water out, leaving it less than 1 foot deep in some areas. The phenomenon, which also occurred during Hurricane Irma, is sometimes referred to as a reverse, or negative, storm surge. Winds to the north of the storm blew in from the east, pushing water away from the shoreline, said Christopher Slocum, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Florida has one of the most rigorous building codes in the country, a result of construction rules adopted after Hurricane Andrew destroyed tens of thousands of homes in South Florida in 1992. In more recent storms, such as Hurricane Irma, structures built under modern codes have performed better than older buildings. By contrast, in states without mandatory and up-to-date building codes, such as Tennessee and Kentucky, the damage from extreme weather events tends to be far worse.
Although the full extent of the havoc Hurricane Ian has wreaked in southwest Florida will not be known for some time, other parts of the state that were pounded by the storm assessed their flood damage Wednesday.
The death of a 34-year-old man in Martin County, on the east coast north of Palm Beach County, was being investigated as tied to the storm. Officials said the man had been clearing debris in a yard and was found face down in 10 inches of water.
Tornadoes were reported in Broward County, overturning small planes, stripping siding from homes and uprooting trees.
And in Key West, where storm surge had swept over the tourist strip of Duval Street, businesses opened their doors wide to dry out the wet floors. The authorities predicted even worse flooding through Friday because of high tides.
Eko Kereselidze and her friend, Dea Tinikashvili, had prepared as best they could by storing important documents in vacuum-sealed plastic and propping large appliances in the carport off the ground. The washer was up on bricks and the clothes dryer on a chair.
At one point during the storm, they found a man standing on the corner in the pelting rain, holding bags of his belongings. His home had flooded and he fled on foot. They took the stranger in.
“I feel like they did not prepare us for this,” Tinikashvili said, lamenting that the warnings from county officials were not strident enough. “They did not say: ‘Get ready for 1 or 2 feet of water in your house.’”
In Lee County, however, the emergency alert system warned residents by phone to go to the highest spot in their homes if water rushed in.
“Responders begin rescues after the storm passes,” the message relayed via text and phone calls said. “This could last all night.”