‘It’s going to be emotional’: Residents of Florida island cut off from mainland by Hurricane Ian return to survey ‘unlivable’ homes


A week after Hurricane Ian hit Florida, residents of its barrier islands will be allowed to return to their homes on Wednesday after the storm devastated the once-quiet community.

Ian obliterated part of the causeway connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland, setting the stage for days of air and sea evacuations as crews searched for those adrift.

Sanibel Island residents returning to survey the damage to their community are shocked, said City Manager Dana Souza.

“It’s going to be emotional when they see their properties up close and see the damage this storm did,” Souza told CNN.

Homes that may look good from the outside can still prove too damaged to live in, Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith said.

While residents will be given access to their property, the island is still “very safe,” Smith said.

“There are many places that are not suitable for living. There are places that are off their foundation, and it’s very dangerous out there,” said Sanibel Fire Chief William Briscoe. “There’s alligators running around, and there’s snakes all over the place.”

Souza also described the devastation, saying most power poles and transmission lines are down, along with the wastewater system. “Without these necessary infrastructures, it is difficult to sustain a community of 7,000 people throughout the year,” added Souza.

“It’s going to be a while before life gets back to normal in Sanibel,” he said.

The island’s year-round population is about 7,000 people, but peaks at 35,000 in high season, which is about a month away, according to Souza.

It could take a month or more to restore power to some areas of Sanibel and Pine Islands, Karen Ryan, director of public relations for the Lee County Electric Cooperative, told CNN.

“It will be much easier to restore power once we gain access to the island,” Ryan said.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has directed transportation officials to prioritize repairs to the Sanibel Causeway, which has been damaged at various points by the storm.

“Access to our barrier islands is a priority for our first responders and emergency services, who have been working around the clock to provide relief to all Floridians affected by Hurricane Ian,” the governor said in a statement.

Aerial photo of the damaged Sanibel Causeway connecting the island community of Fort Myers.

Days after the hurricane’s landfall, while decimated houses fill the streets, residents are left facing losses.

As of Tuesday, at least 109 people have been killed by the hurricane in the United States, 105 of them in Florida.

It is not clear how many people are still missing. Florida officials are working to finalize the list of people who remain unaccounted for, Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said Monday.

So far, more than 2,300 rescues have taken place across the state, DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday. More than 1,000 city search and rescue workers have combed 79,000 structures across Florida.

While search and rescue efforts continue, many residents are still in the dark.

More than 330,000 Florida customers were still without power early Wednesday, according to PowerOutage.us. Many of the outages are in Lee and Charlotte counties.

In this aerial view, an FDOT crew works to repair the road leading to Pine Island on Tuesday.

Public schools in Charlotte County, north of Fort Myers, will be closed until further notice after several of its 22 schools were damaged by Hurricane Ian.

“The storm lasted more than 12 hours here, hammering. Nothing is safe at this time,” Charlotte County Public Schools spokesman Mike Riley said.

Florida hospitals have also struggled. Emergency departments have suffered, staffing has been affected as many hospital staff have been displaced or lost their vehicles, and some facilities have lost reliable access to water.

“We were ready, we had our generators ready. We had plenty of fuel. What we could not foresee and what we did not anticipate was the loss of water to our utility companies,” said Dr. Larry Antonucci, President and CEO of Lee Health.

Since the storm made landfall many areas have been left under boil notices, critical infrastructure and even homes.

Residents in Lee and Charlotte counties — the two counties with the highest death tolls from the hurricane — will be able to get a temporary blue roof covering with fiber-reinforced sheeting to help reduce further damage, according to a Charlotte County news release.

Meanwhile, in Naples, hundreds of residents may not be able to return to their homes for a period of time, city manager Jay Boodheswar told CNN.

“There was a large number of houses, in fact, an entire neighborhood was submerged in at least three feet of water. Some areas were getting six to seven feet of water,” Boodheshwar said. “I would guess that there are probably hundreds of households that will experience a period of time where they won’t be able to stay in their homes.”

Members of Miami-Dade Task Force 1 Search and Rescue examine a pile of debris from victims Tuesday in Matlacha, Florida.

As rescue teams continue to search the wreckage for signs of life, some families are learning that their loved ones did not survive.

Stacy Verdream told CNN that she learned her uncle, Mike Verdream, who is “funny, goofy and very smart,” was among Ian’s victims.

Mike Verdream decided to ride out Hurricane Matlacha and planned to go to his boss’s two-story house in case things got worse, his nephew told CNN.

Stacy Verdream said her cousin spoke to her on Wednesday, the day the hurricane made landfall, and said the water was four feet deep before she was told she had to go.

Mike Verdream is among the victims of Hurricane Ian, his family said.

“It was a very short call because he said he was very scared and that he had never heard anything like this before, because he was not that type of person. He always puts on a brave face,” Stacy Verdream said. “But he said he was absolutely terrified.”

On Friday, Verdream was told that the uncle had survived the storm and was helping people. They said he couldn’t call because his phone got wet.

His niece said it made sense at first because his uncle was “very prolific.”

“He would give you the shirt off his back, the last bit of money he had if someone needed him,” Stacy Verdream said. “Always concerned to help other people and not himself.”

As more time passed, they became concerned that he hadn’t borrowed someone’s phone or found another way to get in touch.

On Monday, the sheriff’s office notified the family that Verdream had died. His body was found in a canal on Friday, he said.

Authorities had to use medical records to identify the uncle because his face was unknown, Stacy Verdream said.

“He always raised me, taught me how to drive and took me to the fair,” she said. “He would have bought me like a bicycle, and my nice uncle would have bought us a motorbike, to go to the lake, for example. He loved us until death.”