All that's left of Ana Kapel's home not far from the once lively Times Square of Fort Myers Beach are her porch steps.
At The Pier Peddler, a gift shop that Kapel managed, she gazed at the wreckage of the building that stood there on Fifth Street since 1985, talking with her friend Candy Miller, a local muralist, about what happened to neighbors whose lives were claimed by Hurricane Ian.
"Your landlord, last I heard, she was in the bathtub and the walls were crumbling around her," Miller told Kapel, in shock, Friday afternoon.
"One of the neighbors down at the end of the block by the bay heard her screaming as her house was floating into the bay," Kapel responded.
Another woman and her husband were swept out into the surging water. The wife survived because she clung onto a railing for hours. But the water took her husband away.
The days of grueling search and rescue efforts in Fort Myers Beach - one of the areas particularly ravaged by Hurricane Ian - have begun, and those whose homes, businesses, jobs and sense of safety were obliterated in the blink of an eye are setting out on a long and uncertain road to a new life.
The barrier island town may be unlivable for years. Some residents have decided to stay despite its apocalyptic condition. And many who evacuated or were rescued Friday had no immediate plans for where to go or how to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida's southwest coast at Cayo Costa on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 storm that brought winds of 150 mph and as much as 18 feet of storm surge in some areas. President Joe Biden said earlier this week that destruction from Ian could be the worst in Florida history. At least 24 died, but that number is likely to rise.
FEMA's South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team Florida Task Force 2 has set up its base of operations not far from the end of the Matanzas Pass Bridge on the northern side of the island outside of the new Margaritaville resort that was still under construction. The 82-person team, made up of personnel from Broward County Sheriff's Office Fire Rescue, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue, City of Miami Fire Rescue and other South Florida agencies, was among the first to get on the ground in Fort Myers Beach following Ian.
Days earlier, the view across the street from where the first responders are set up was of downtown restaurants and shops with Florida's touristy allure. Now, the entire island people called paradise is the inscrutable view of a city laid to waste.
Thorough searches underway
Many of the Florida Task Force 2 members who will be extricating people over the next several days were among those who spent weeks at the site of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside last June.
The task force specialists conducted their initial, rapid assessment sweeps and reconnaissance up and down Fort Myers Beach in Ian's wake Friday, called hasty searches, to rescue people in most immediate need, those who were able to be rescued from homes or who were out in the streets and getting them on shuttles to the mainland. By Saturday, the team was on its next phase of the search, said Capt. Ignatius Carroll, a spokesman for the City of Miami Fire Rescue and Florida Task Force 2.
Jimmy Dobson, who was leading one of the task force squads, said this search phase requires them to check every single structure on the entire island methodically - homes, apartments, condominiums, businesses, vehicles and vessels. Crews will search from floor-to-floor and room-to-room, leaving no door unopened and no space unchecked. After that will come a secondary search.
Since Wednesday night, over 750 people who sheltered in place have been accounted for, Carroll said. The team has helped over 200 people evacuate and assisted over 100 more who chose to stay on the island by clearing debris blocking them inside. They have also responded to 30 medical emergencies, including two people who went into cardiac arrest and were revived by members of the task force.
On Friday, the first responders said via radio several times throughout the day that they found human remains.
Task force members Dennys Bermudez and Rudy Perez, both with Miami Fire Rescue, headed down Estero Boulevard in their high-water special operations truck Friday, passing cars with mangled frames that had been flipped upside down as if they were no heavier than Matchbox toys, structures with roofs and walls peeled off, and a church with crosses still enduring high above the street.
Bermudez and Perez were flagged down by a man who shouted in Spanish, requesting them to check on a brown dog who appeared to be injured. Bermudez and Perez approached what once was the bottom of a multi-level home that had been completely gutted, almost all of the walls on the second floor gone, revealing a hanging wall decoration of a mermaid that somehow held during the storm.
As Bermudez and Perez drove along Estero Boulevard, signs of the unfathomable destruction spread out in every direction. They passed another task force member who tied a piece of ribbon onto a piling outside of a building to mark that a squad had searched the area.
Steps of an intact staircase led to nothing but empty space. What was once a laundromat still had a line of washing machines in a row inside the ravished building. A man sitting alone outside a 7-Eleven gas station waited for a shuttle off the island. The pink building of the Beach Theater remained largely intact with its "coming soon" movie posters attached to the wall. Near the Dolphin Inn resort at 6555 Estero Blvd., a man stood with his hands on his hips looking down into the rubble at his feet.
Perez said they'd heard of one resident who stayed for the storm and was washed from his home a mile away. Residents throughout the day pushed stray shopping carts up and down the main road with their bags and few belongings inside. Some saw dead bodies in debris around the island.
'Never be the same'
Caitlin Bechtel, who waited out the storm inside of a friend's home on Egret Street, was one of the many people rescuers encountered Friday. She, four other adults, her 9-year-old son and one dog were there and told the rescue crew that they'd be staying put for now.
A pungent fishy smell permeated the air and a thick layer of gray sludge even some rescuers tried not to slip on covered the roads. She poked her head out a window of the multi-level home and said she and her group plan to leave once they can figure out where to go.
"I grew up on this island," she said. "It'll never be the same. This is my home. This is my job. This is everything, and it's never going to be the same and the people are never going to be the same."
Bechtel and her group aren't the only ones who made the decision to stay after the storm. On several of the rescuers' stops, residents told them they planned to do the same.
Capt. Vincent Latona, of Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue, said getting water and electricity back on the island "could take much longer than they expect." Rescuers are recommending everyone get out, but they are not being forced to leave.
John Van Fleet, who lived at 155 Egret St., needed help getting down the stairs of his home due to a swollen leg. Task force specialists helped him down and onto the bed of their truck. He left his home of 30 years with a single red bag.
"There's a thousand things I'd like to take with me," Van Fleet told the rescuers.
Egret Street still had flood water pooled in places near the intersection of Estero Boulevard. Van Fleet said he had only gotten about halfway down his street to see the damage. As he was lifted into an ambulance, he would be seeing the miles and miles of destruction for the first time.
"I don't know what to expect," he said.
Leaving the island
Jon Parrish was starting to clear debris outside of his sea green house at 240 Curlew St. a block over. He said he evacuated but came back by boat to see the island Thursday and Friday. Two other houses he owns on the beach are gone, he said.
"I've been in Florida since I was 5. I've been through so many hurricanes you can't count. This is by far the worst I have ever seen," Parrish said.
Rescuers used the 7-Eleven at 7120 Estero Blvd. as a shuttle pickup point for residents who wanted to leave; it was one of the few places with intact signs.
Two women sat on a lounge chair that looked like it once belonged to a resort pool waiting for the shuttle.
Tatiana and Paul Grzebielucha, who lived on Island Pines Way in a third-story condo, waited at the station for the next shuttle. Paul Grzebielucha was on a business trip in Chicago on Tuesday but decided to fly back and return to Fort Myers Beach ahead of the storm to be with his wife.
Island residents await evacuation at 7-11 on Estero Blvd., the main thoroughfare on the island of Fort Myers Beach, on Friday, Sept. 30. There are two of the chain gas stations on the island and both are being used as rendezvous points for evacuees to await transport. Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane on the Southwest coast of Florida.
Island residents await evacuation at 7-11 on Estero Blvd., the main thoroughfare on the island of Fort Myers Beach, on Friday, Sept. 30. There are two of the chain gas stations on the island and both are being used as rendezvous points for evacuees to await transport. Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane on the Southwest coast of Florida. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
They, like many others, were caught off guard by Ian's unexpected turn toward the southeast.
"We thought it was going past Tampa … When it stayed here for eight hours, I'm looking at the thing and saying, 'Why isn't it moving?' The longer it stayed the more that I knew we were in trouble," he said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference this week that the Fort Myers and Naples areas were not in the storm's cone on Sunday. The Tampa area was initially forecast to be hardest hit, and some from Tampa ended up evacuating to the Fort Myers area.
"That storm kept moving further southeast as it was going compared to where the models are," DeSantis said. "Whoever was on that right side of that eyewall - Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach, those areas - that was the biggest wallop."
The bridge to the north side of Fort Myers Beach was the only safe way in and out. The bridge on the island's southern side had been declared structurally unsound, first responders communicated over radio throughout the day. Parts of the Sanibel Causeway collapsed.
Once in the thick of the storm, Paul Grzebielucha said water in their garage was 5 to 6 feet deep, and he recalled the noise of the wind and attempting to keep the doors shut by sticking shower rods across them.
The island's current state, he said, looked like bombs were dropped.
"We feel blessed and fortunate that we survived, and I think that's the key message," he said. "Everything else can be replaced. There were many others who were less fortunate than us."
They planned to get to one of their cars they parked off the island and then go to stay with a friend in Tampa for about a month. They were drawn to Florida from Chicago because of its politics, the weather and water, Paul Grzebielucha said.
"We love the water. What we love most, we were hurt by most," he said.
A woman pushes a shopping cart amid the destruction on Estero Blvd., the main thoroughfare on the island of Fort Myers Beach, on Friday, Sept. 30. Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane on the Southwest coast of Florida.
A woman pushes a shopping cart amid the destruction on Estero Blvd., the main thoroughfare on the island of Fort Myers Beach, on Friday, Sept. 30. Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane on the Southwest coast of Florida. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
'We said our goodbyes'
Terry Schubert stuck out his thumb like a hitchhiker and jumped into one of the task force vehicles. He said he came back onto the island to assess damage on his street, Indian Bayou Drive, and start cleaning up.
On the ride north, he recalled the memories he and his late wife and children made there over the years. The first time they came to Fort Myers Beach he will never forget, he said.
His kids were at the age then when all they needed to be content was a pool, sand to shape into castles and a beach to play on, he said. His wife enjoyed antique shopping there.
"Our attraction was that it was a safe place to be," he said. "It was always sunshiney."
Schubert has lived on the island since 2018 but visited each year from out of state starting in 1992 before becoming a resident. He said his family came to Fort Myers Beach three times a year for each Easter break, Christmas and summer and would stay at Bay Village Condos where he bought a unit as a vacation home for the family.
"I said, 'I'll come to paradise,'" Schubert said of his move.
Back near the base of the one operable bridge, Cindy Clark and her husband Andres Carrion sat outside of one of the local law enforcement agency's mobile command units.
Clark grew up in Fort Myers and spent as much of her time as possible on the beach. When she retired, she moved to a condo on the island. That's where she and her husband endured the storm, at the Creciente Condos at 7146 Estero Blvd., at a downstairs unit near the water.
Once the windows burst, in came a "wall of water and whatever debris it caught," Carrion described. They grabbed their pets and fled to try to get to higher ground. Other condo owners escaping to a staircase held the door open for them against the monstrous winds. They said they barely made it to safety. She, Carrion and several other owners took refuge in a third-floor unit.
The couple described scavenging a pile of shoes that blew out from a store for ones that fit, pointing to their feet. Once they get off the island, Carrion and Clark said they may go to another one of their homes in San Antonio, Texas. But after losing all their documentation, Carrion wondered how they'd get there.
"How do we get our identity back?" he said through tears.
Clark said she thought about staying on the island but was told by a sheriff's deputy that it could be years before power and electricity is restored.
"Now I know I'm doing the right thing by leaving." Clark said.
Mark Garcia and his father, Richard Garcia, evacuated their home and braved the storm at the Wyndham Garden resort, where Mark worked as a maintenance manager. Water eventually seeped into the building's second floor.
"We said our goodbyes," Mark said. "The whole building was shaking because the waves were just pounding it directly off the Gulf."
Richard Garcia said he could feel the floor move.
"I thought the building was going to go down," he said.
If they hadn't left their home on Hibiscus Drive, they would not have survived, they said. The single-level block home is gone.
"After (Hurricane) Charley," Mark Garcia said, "we lost so many places and now this just took out everything else that Charley didn't."