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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Hurricane Ian was the houseguest that just wouldn’t leave

October 13, 2022
By Marcy Shortuse

Hurricane Ian was the ninth named storm, fourth hurricane and second major hurricane of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season. Those facts seem so matter of fact when you look out your window and see exactly what a monstrous, devastating storm Ian turned out to be. The storm’s slow crawl across the state, bringing damage from Venice down to Naples and across the state, was excruciating for those who had to experience it … Ian was the houseguest that would never leave.

Ian first formed in the central Caribbean on September 23 and strengthened into a hurricane on September 26. At that time Ian had windspeeds recorded at 105 mph and it became the strongest September hurricane in this region of the Caribbean in history.

When Hurricane Ian entered the Gulf of Mexico it was already a very dangerous storm, but warm water and perfect winds grew it more and more as it made its way toward Florida. Right up until the night before no one was sure where Ian would land on the Gulf Coast, and in fact it was predicted to hit more north of us, in Tampa or St. Petersburg.

But it did not hit there. It hit us. University of Florida storm researchers seemed to know that, as they gathered along the road by the Johann Fust Library the day before. Jim Cantore was in Punta Gorda, waiting for Ian as well.

Some meteorologists say that Ian came ashore at Cayo Costa at approximately 3 p.m. with winds of 155 miles per hour, which is just shy of a Category 5. This ranking is only shared by four other documented hurricanes in the history of the United States.

Effects from Hurricane Ian were felt far earlier than 3 p.m. By 11 a.m. we had winds that already felt like they were hurricane force. By opening a door to the outside, you could feel the pressure change in your ears. Things that weren’t tied down were beginning to fly away.

From 3 p.m. until about 11 p.m. the storm stayed on top of us. By 11:30 p.m. you could tell minor differences in the screaming wind. Sometime after midnight it stopped … and the silence was deafening.

Charlotte County administrators had a meeting on October 4 where it was announced that our area’s wind meters picked up gusts of 209 mph with sustained winds at the height of the storm registered at 179 mph. For hours and hours, the winds stayed in that range, making even the strongest structures shake. 

Fort Myers and neighboring beachfront communities experienced a storm surge of 12 to 18 feet above ground level, along with hurricane winds. Many landmarks on Fort Myers Beach, many neighborhoods even, are gone. Not just damaged or destroyed. Quite literally swept away into the Gulf of Mexico. The Sanibel Causeway was dismantled in several places. 

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay was sucked dry. 

Storm surge records were set for both Fort Myers at 7 feet, and Naples, at 6 feet. Rainfall in Orlando broke its 24-hour rainfall record with 12.49 inches. New Smyrna Beach recorded 28.60 inches of rain in just 27 hours. Ian continued wreaking havoc when he turned north, creating massive destruction in places like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 

Closer to home, there are tales that speak of chest-high water along the Boca Grande Causeway right after the storm. It’s easy to believe, as the water at the base of the south bridge still hasn’t completely subsided, two weeks later. Piles of furniture and debris are along the road at Boca Grande North, where entire walls were torn from condominiums, as well as roofs. Other homes and businesses on the island don’t appear to be damaged from the outside, but water dripping through walls and cracked foundations are being found. By Thursday morning it was determined that 2.3 million people in Florida had no electricity.  

It has been deemed the fifth most dangerous and damaging hurricane in U.S. history. While deaths are still being counted, as of press time they stand at 117. However, Sheriff Bill Prummell of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office said that his county had 24 deaths, but only two were counted into the state’s tally. Does that mean that many more counties are the same? 

Lee County had the highest death toll – at 58 – and most of the victims were over the age of 70 and died from drowning. Many of those deaths are attributed to factors like a reliance on medical equipment that was not easily transported, having no friends or family to go to in an evacuate circumstance, not having enough money or no car to evacuate with, a lack of watching the news and, unfortunately, the fact that Ian couldn’t make up his mind where to come ashore until Wednesday. 

Other deaths were reported after the storm, but still because of Hurricane Ian. Electrocutions, falls while doing repair work, automobile accidents caused by hydroplaning, some suicides … the list goes on. Post-hurricane terrain is just as dangerous sometimes as it is during the storm.

Mandatory evacuation orders were put in place for Gasparilla Island at the same time they were for the rest of coastal Lee County – early in the morning on September 27. That was a day before Ian was expected to hit, but in many cases a day’s time isn’t enough. Charlotte County EOC administrators issued a mandatory evacuation for everyone in zone A (coastal) the afternoon prior, which included the northern tip of Gasparilla Island.

Research is far from done on this storm. Emergency Operations Center administrators and meteorologists are still collecting data to find out whether Ian was a Cat 4 or Cat 5. The death toll is still not complete; searchers have switched from search-and-rescue mode to search-and-recovery down south of us in the Fort Myers area. Property damage estimates are still to be tallied, but the path of the storm was so wide, there is little doubt it will be billions of dollars. After all, this storm was hundreds of miles wide and its effects were felt throughout a large portion of the state.

It will take many years for our island to look like it once did, and in some areas it never will. But we had no deaths, we had an excellent emergency response and neighbors came together to help one another. We have survived, we always will. Gasparilla Island has too much heart do anything but.