“Nene died there with us,” sobbed Chanel Marston, 48, as she recounted the ordeal. “She took her last breath with us.”
Florida Gov. President Joe Biden as stories of death emerge amid devastation in southwest Florida. Ron DeSantis and local authorities clashed over Ian’s casualties. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told Good Morning America that the death toll could be in the hundreds. Biden warned that Ian could be “the deadliest hurricane in Florida history.” The governor played down the death toll in his daily briefing, saying the number of tropical cyclones would not come close to the 1928 hurricane that killed 2,500 people.
However, Ian has become the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935. State authorities have recorded 72 deaths so far — slightly less than the death toll from Hurricane Irma in 2017, according to the National Hurricane Center. County sheriffs reported dozens more, bringing the total to at least 103. This made Ian more deadly than Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Ian’s storm surge claimed the most lives, according to the Florida Medical Examiner Commission, which is counting direct and indirect fatalities. The latest figures show that slightly more than half of Ian’s victims drowned, underscoring what experts say is an often overlooked reality: Water usually kills more people than wind.
A storm surge as high as 18 feet swept through the house, trapping some people inside while pulling others into the brown river. A woman has been found tangled in wires under her house. Many drowning people are elderly.
“I don’t want to scare people, but they need to understand: The leading cause of death will be drowning,” said W. Craig Fugate, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Florida Emergency Management Agency. “Storm surges don’t sound deadly unless you understand.”
A week after landing, rescue teams continue to trudge through devastated communities – often alone A vague idea of who might be buried in the rubble. Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais acknowledged at a news conference Monday that officials did not know how many people they were looking for. First responders rely on dead dogs.
“We’ve got nothing,” Brian Sullivan, chief of Task Force 2 in Virginia, said Tuesday as his team scours the Red Coconut RV park in Fort Myers Beach, the storm’s ground zero. “The Sheriff’s Office is trying to compile a list of missing persons. We have not received any information about the area.”
Counting fatalities is an imprecise science—there are no exact statistics for Hurricane Katrina, for example—and officials have debated what storm fatalities are for years. Hurricane Maria initially killed dozens, with officials including only drowning and blunt trauma. But a later analysis of the excess deaths pushed the total into the thousands. Many elderly people have died in Puerto Rico due to months of power outages on the island and difficulty accessing medical care.
DeSantis initially said indirect deaths may not be counted.
“In Charlotte County, for example, they documented suicides during storms,” he said The day after the storm. “They also let someone die of a heart attack because you don’t have access to emergency services.”
But the Florida Board of Medical Examiners, the agency responsible for cataloguing deaths, insists on a broader definition.
“We include motor vehicle accidents if someone tries to evacuate and do a seaplane,” spokesman Gretl Plessinger said. “If someone has a heart attack while medical services are interrupted. . …..if there’s any suspicion it has something to do with a hurricane, it’s a storm death.
According to the National Hurricane Center, water — storm surge, rain, inland flooding and waves — directly contributes to 90 percent of tropical cyclone deaths in the United States. Number one indirect killer: car wrecks, carbon monoxide poisoning, electrocution and heat. After the skies cleared, the deadly danger remained, said Jay Barnes, a hurricane historian in North Carolina.
“Deaths often occur during cleanup,” he said. “Everything from carbon monoxide poisoning and chainsaw victims to people falling from roofs.”
Disaster experts say many Americans underestimate the power of hurricanes. They tend to depict powerful gusts and fallen trees—perhaps because the country’s most famous taxonomic scale measures wind. Some people at risk choose to squat at home. Critics blasted Lee County authorities for not ordering Fort Myers Beach residents to evacuate sooner.
“There’s a saying in the industry that shelter from water is shelter from wind,” said John Renne, director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “We need to better communicate the risk in storm surge areas.”
Mitch Pacyna, 74, a Fort Myers Beach resident who has weathered tropical storms for 27 years. His social life was so crowded that Pasina’s friends jokingly called him “the mayor.”
On Facebook, he recorded the storm’s approach, noting that the forecast indicated Ian would fly to Tampa. Pasina chose to stay when county officials ordered his barrier island to be emptied before the hurricane hit.
“Oh my god…wrong decision,” he lamented in a video as water swept his streets. Soon the tide swept into the house he shared with his partner, Mary, and washed away the bar he had built in the garage.
Pacyna’s last post: “We’re scared.”
The next day, his family announced his death.
“Everybody loved him,” said Scott Safford, co-owner of Sea Gypsy Inn, a lemon-yellow hotel that used to be near Pacyna’s home. Now it doesn’t exist anymore.
For rescuers, finding victims has been hampered by a lack of information on who stayed and where the storm surge might take them.
Once a seaside oasis, the Red Coconut RV park is crushed to shards of roofs, walls and knickknacks. On Tuesday, dozens of members of Virginia Task Force 2, one of the urban search and rescue teams deployed to Florida, were digging through the rubble and three corpse dogs found possible human scents. They only found household items, including a false fridge full of beer.
“It’s just total destruction,” said Sullivan, the team’s leader.
The holiday home that Nishelle Harris-Miles’ friends and family had booked for her birthday was running out.
The women from Dayton, Ohio, heard that Ian was galloping toward Tampa Bay and thought the airline or rental homeowners would cancel them if the storm posed a real threat to Fort Myers Beach.
They arrived the Tuesday before Ian hit and tried to make the most of it: dancing indoors, taking silly pictures, singing “Happy Birthday.”
“We were smashed to the ceiling,” Marston said of what happened next. “We were fighting the ceiling and there was water all over the place. Next thing you know, the roof came down and we went with it.”
She estimated that they were trapped in the rubble for 14 hours. Eventually, someone heard their cries, built a makeshift plank and pulled them out. A rescue worker from the helicopter confirmed what Marston already knew: Nene was dead.
“We don’t want her to be left behind,” she said.
Nene is the mother of two sons and two daughters. A home health aide who cares for her patients. Tourists who saved money for that trip.
“We could never have imagined,” Marston said. “I saw bodies hanging out of the window. I’ve never seen anything like this – only on TV.”
“We don’t know,” she said. “We just don’t know.”
Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report. Paquet reported from Washington.