‘Absolute devastation’: Hurricane Ian decimates Fort Myers Beach

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FORT MYERS BEACH — They thought second floors would be safe.

But Hurricane Ian was more brutal than some residents of Fort Myers Beach ever imagined.

Kevin Behen left his studio apartment and hunkered down in a corner room in a stout building by the foot of the bridge into town. The surge licked the second-floor deck. He sprinted upstairs and banged on a door until someone let him in.

“It sounded like there was a tornado coming every five minutes,” Behen said.

The water rose rapidly like a dam had collapsed.

Daybreak on Thursday revealed devastation — another slice of salt-streaked Florida forever altered by a storm.

Blown-out homes blocked side streets, each an eruption of soggy wood and metal. Sand covered the main drag, Estero Boulevard, as if hurling the barrier island back in time.

Beer bottles and kegs spilled out from shattered bars like confetti, and Winds — the beach souvenir shack near the northern edge of town — was a husk. Ian blew out all the shop’s windows, and most of the tile inside, too. Soaked neon swimsuits, hats and sunset-colored T-shirts lay in a wet curl around the building.

The stiff sea breeze was tainted by the smell of natural gas.

Behen took a call from his father as pickup trucks rumbled into the city.

“The island is like somebody took an atom bomb and dropped it,” he said into his phone.

Behen soon stumbled upon another man, who said he’d ridden his roof through the flood to shelter, slept on a porch, and feared his roommate and two others were dead. He had no shoes and bloody gashes on both his head and legs.

An untold number of people stayed while Ian battered Southwest Florida as one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall in the United States. Some are now missing.

A Coast Guard helicopter thwacked over Fort Myers Beach about 10 a.m., dropping a stretcher into the wreckage and hauling a person up.

Emergency officials expect to find bodies in the rubble, said Jennifer Campbell, the local fire marshal. They know people did not all heed the evacuation orders. Campbell walked through town with a colleague Thursday, surveying the damage and shutting off gas lines.

“Absolute devastation,” she said. “There’s barely anything left.”

Just before the last bridge to Fort Myers Beach, Max Lopez-Figueroa, 28, and his wife, Zhenia, 30, had planned to huddle in their second-floor condo during the hurricane. But the surge rose and rose until it approached their deck.

They scrambled upstairs to another unit with their children, Yuriel, 2, and Aziel, 2 months. Then the entire side of the building blew off.

“No preparation could have prepared us for this,” Max said. Aziel slept through the storm, and Yuriel, remarkably calm, watched “Dog Gone Trouble.”

Flying debris — they can’t know what — dented their storm shutters. Their brand new Mazda SUV was completely flooded. But the inside of their unit turned out mostly OK.

Around their home, grounded boats lined the road like shadows. A pleasure cruiser’s stern sat atop a squashed SUV.

The Lopez-Figueroas said they think they will move north now, out of Florida.

“It’s not because we’re running from it,” Zhenia said. “We have nothing. So you start over.”

Down Estero Boulevard near the elementary school, Cheryl Summers and Jay Kimble had abandoned their first floor home to stay with an upstairs neighbor. They took their four cats with them.

Still, Ian blew out the walls of the building’s lower level, and the whole structure shook. Dark water rose outside.

They feared they would have to swim for safety. Kimble, 48, tied a hammer to a rope and stepped onto an exterior staircase, trying to hook a kayak for their escape. Wood beams and a trailer floated by. The wind howled.

The kayak, he realized, was tied to a tree. Out of reach.

The couple hadn’t wanted to take their cats to a shelter. So, in the thick of the storm, they took sleeping pills to ease their panic.

Up the road, Karla Quillen nervously watched the sea rise to just below her second-floor apartment. Her windows rattled, and rain leaked inside. The surge was tinted muddy brown.

She knew the nearby convenience store had been destroyed when the ice cream cooler floated past her window.

Ian’s forecast had seemed to swallow much of Florida, she said, and she figured she couldn’t get out of the state completely before it arrived. Her boss offered a place to stay in Cape Coral, but it was just a single-story.

Quillen, 67, works in a souvenir shop that she said blew away from the first floor of the Lani Kai Island Resort.

Walking down Estero Boulevard, surveying the damage just before the sun peaked out Thursday morning, she felt lucky to have only lost a bike and car. Her voice caught behind tears.

“I just can’t believe that Mother Nature would do something like this,” she said. “My God.”

Not far away, along San Carlos Boulevard near Fort Myers Beach, Dana Pearson plucked lead sinkers from the pavement that had blown across the street during the storm.

Her husband’s 65-foot boat was tossed like a toy into the nearby mangroves. Their poles were buried in the branches.

Another captain Sean Adler, of Estero, walked around looking at the damage. He’s been a fishing guide for 15 years in the area, and lately, business had been excellent.

But after Ian, he’s thinking about a move to Jupiter on Florida’s East Coast.

“The people aren’t going to come here,” he said.

The Fort Myers area relies on hotels and beaches, which were decimated by the hurricane.

Adler’s condo was still in good shape, he said, but he needed time to process what happened to the place he loved.

“Things aren’t adding up right now,” he said.

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane coverage

TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath

WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.