Roughly 10,000 people throughout Florida remain housed in shelters after evacuating their homes, officials said Saturday, as Hurricane Ian response efforts continued three days after the disaster.
The number of people displaced — which does not include those who are not staying in shelters — was yet another sign of the level of destruction left behind by Ian, as state and federal agencies continued to recover bodies and transport stranded residents.
The initial emergency phase of rescuing hurricane victims with medical emergencies has largely passed, officials said. The vast majority of rescues at this point are from people who are left stranded in the barrier islands.
In areas that took the brunt of the storm’s landfall within Lee County, including Matlacha and Sanibel Island, some residents journeyed back to survey their homes. But the lack of water and basic infrastructure is forcing them back into limbo, said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson.
“I think after camping out there after about a night or two, they’re realizing that that’s not a viable option,” McPherson told reporters on Saturday during a call with federal officials on the Ian response. “The state is working to get those people to safety and put them in a stable location to reunify them with families. And then we’ll do the, you know, I’m sure the state will, with the support of FEMA, will do the hard work of recovering.”
But on Saturday, recovery seemed a long ways away. With more than 50 people potentially dead, search and rescue efforts ongoing, persistent water problems in Lee County and more than a million without power, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was still too early to identify what types of transitional housing programs it was likely to launch.
“We’re working closely with the state on how to tackle all recovery issues, including housing. Those discussions have started and are ongoing, but there’s no resolutions to those discussions,” said Anne Bink, FEMA’s Assistant Administrator for response and recovery.
‘Trying to help’
In the artsy fishing village of Matlacha, some of the only sounds Saturday morning were birds diving into the flat water, boats beginning to shuttle back and forth from the mainland and alarms blaring from empty homes.
People who stayed during the storm and insist on remaining afterward were walking their dogs, cleaning up their properties or taking pictures.
“It’s horrible,” said Felipe Cite, 40, speaking in Spanish. He’s a 20-year Pine Island resident who was trying to make calls.
He and his family live in a trailer on Pine Island, south of Bokeelia. The two trailers next to them were completely leveled. Now there are three families sheltering in one home.
“Some homes over there were completely gone,” Cite said, on a boat ride back to the mainland from Matlacha.
On the search and rescue efforts, McPherson said the Coast Guard alone has rescued about 400 people and 100 pets since the storm made landfall, only a fraction of the 4,000 estimated rescues by all assisting agencies at the local and federal level.
On Saturday, two Sarasota area men brought their fishing charter boat down to ferry people and supplies from Matlacha. They talked about the journey down Florida’s west coast, where some roads and highway exits are still closed due to flooding, and power is still out in some towns.
But what they’ve seen in Lee County has shocked them.
“We’re just trying to help,” one of them said.
Looking for normalcy
Elsewhere in Southwest Florida, the adrenaline and feelings of shock were slowly wearing off and giving way to frustration and anger. Despite the lack of power, and to the tune of chainsaws and generators, a few stores and fast food restaurants near Bonita Springs began opening.
At a WalMart in the area, a dozen people sat on the concrete floor in the entryway with cellphones plugged into outlets. Another dozen waited in line to charge their phones.
Another line wrapped around a McDonald’s despite its limited menu.
At a Chevron station, an argument broke out about who had gotten to the pump first.
In the parking lot of a condo complex, all cars sat with all doors wide open, and floor mats lay on the pavement. It was time to air out the stinky interior after being flooded.
Neighbors fired up two grills by the pool, eager to make something good out of something almost rotten — food from their dead refrigerators and freezers.
Linda Robertson, Joey Flechas, Bianca Padro Ocasio, Miami Herald. Miami Herald staff writer Nick Nehamas contributed to this story.