Florida areas hardest hit by Ian require massive search, rescue efforts to reach thousands stranded

Since Hurricane Ian, more than 2,500 people have been rescued and evacuated from flooded areas via trucks, helicopters and boats, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Florida's barrier islands, usually a paradise for beach lovers, anglers and residents, typically have one way in or out. Now, thousands of people are cut off from the mainland after Hurricane Ian, complicating search and rescue efforts.

Hurricane Ian made landfall Sept. 28 as a Category 4 storm near Cayo Costa, just west of Fort Myers Beach, with winds estimated to be about 150 mph. 

Local law enforcement and fire crews, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida National Guard continue to rescue people in areas still entirely surrounded by water with no way in or out unless by boat or air.

Ahead of landfall, Ian caused record storm surge in both the Naples and the Fort Myers areas. Forecasters predicted it could climb above 16 feet in some areas. How high the water got will take time to confirm because some gauges stopped reporting during the storm. The highest recorded surge in Fort Myers was 7.26 feet, a new record for the beach town.

Since the storm passed, more than 2,500 people have been rescued and evacuated from flooded areas by trucks, helicopters and boats, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

About 5,200 National Guard soldiers and airmen are deployed across 11 Florida counties, working with local first responders to perform search and rescue missions with a major focus on the Southwest Florida barrier islands.

"Search and rescue efforts continue primarily down at Fort Myers Beach. As you know, that's the hardest hit area of Lee County," Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said Monday. "We have 11 use our units and seven strike teams on site in the county that are working. And we'll be working almost 24 hours a day until we complete those missions."

Video of rescue efforts showed people being airlifted from flooded neighborhoods, helped out of destroyed homes and whisked away by boat as waters surround homes. 

The U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Miami helped two people and their three cats escape their flooded home on Sanibel Island. 

"There's a whole bunch of people just like y'all, thousands of them," Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler Kilbane told the evacuees while helping them out of the window of their flooded home.

In the video, Kilbane said he spoke to neighbors in the flooded Sanibel neighborhood who didn't want to leave. 

Driving access into both Sanibel and Pine islands has been cut off because roads and bridges are gone. The Matlacha Bridge was destroyed by Ian. 

Florida Department of Transportation brought hundreds of vehicles and crews to Matlacha Pass Bridge and began work Monday to restore access to Pine Island by building a temporary road.  

The barrier island is home to more than 9,000 residents. Those who stayed are without access to power, water and basic needs. 

Sanibel Island Fire and Rescue worked with other agencies in Lee County to evacuate residents from the island with ferries. Fire rescue officials said people who live and work on the island should avoid visiting the area to inspect the damage to allow crews to focus on rescue efforts.

Because of communication outages, the lack of internet and cell service has also made it hard for people who need help to alert authorities.

On Sunday, sheriff’s deputies and rescue crews helped a couple trapped in their 2-story home in Fort Myers Beach after the hurricane washed away the entire first floor, leaving them with no way to get down. 

According to deputies, teams used a ladder to access the house and then a structural engineer found a staircase that was stable enough to use. 

In Lee County, Sheriff Carmine Marceno said local first responders and those who have come from other Florida counties have rescued 800 people since Ian’s landfall last week. 

It’s still unknown how many people are missing. The Florida Medical Examiner's Commission continues to confirm dozens of Ian-related fatalities daily, but it may take weeks to know the full deadly impact of the hurricane.

Emergency management and Fort Myers Fire teams brought food and water to families in the days following the storm, because food and gas still remained scarce in some areas.

About 95% of customers without power because of Ian are expected to be restored by this weekend. The remaining 5% will be areas like the barrier islands that sustained catastrophic damage or cannot be reached by crews yet.

Even when vehicle access is restored to Pine Island and Sanibel, it may take some time before residents have access to fresh food and basic grocery items.

There are two major grocery stores on Pine Island – Publix and Winn-Dixie – and both stores are closed.

According to Publix, its stores on the Southwest Florida barrier islands or on the coast remain closed, including Pine Island, Bokeelia, Englewood, Fort Myers Beach and some Fort Myers locations. 

Grocer Winn-Dixie also showed closed stores in Lake Placid, Venice, North Port, Punta Gorda, Englewood, St. James City on Pine Island and Port Charlotte.

For now, Desjarlais said food is being dropped off at the three fire stations on Pine Island by the National Guard.

According to Florida Department of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie, 164,000 people have applied for FEMA individual assistance so far.