Sharon Matt’s modern beachfront home on Manasota Key was built to withstand hurricanes, with steel rebar running between every other block and concrete poured in to reinforce the structure from roof to foundation.
A powerful storm surge can test even the strongest construction, though.
“We only worry about the surge,” Matt said.
The National Hurricane Center was forecasting up to 10 feet of storm surge from Hurricane Ian for Manasota Key and other coastal areas in Sarasota County.
'I'm in shock': Venice residents react to Hurricane Ian damage
Matt’s house is elevated to 18 feet and she has a guest house with a second story at 30 feet of elevation that she and her husband could retreat to, so she figured they’d be OK. Still, she was keeping a close eye on the surge.
As Ian approached, Matt settled in and braced for the Gulf to rise, watching it through the home’s hurricane-resistant windows and doors.
“We kept waiting and waiting,” she said. “No surge.”
The power of Ian’s storm surge has now been broadcast around the world. Videos show horrifying images of water sweeping across Fort Myers Beach and other nearby coastal areas, submerging cars and buildings. The level of surge destruction in that region is catastrophic. The recovery will be measured in years, maybe decades.
Manasota Key is the southernmost barrier island in Sarasota County and the closest to where Ian made landfall. That it was untouched by surge indicates that Sarasota and Manatee counties appear to have avoided one of Ian’s biggest threats, the prospect of a wall of water rising from the Gulf and wiping out everything in its path. Siesta Key also escaped any noticeable storm surge, according to waterfront residents, and Manatee County reported "zero" beach erosion, indicating there was minimal storm surge.
"I think we dodged our biggest bullet ever," said Dr. David Sugar as he looked out on the Gulf Thursday from his waterfront Siesta Key home, which had no storm damage.
The lack of storm surge is just one example of how the Sarasota-Manatee region fared better than many other areas overall during Ian, which at one point was forecast to give the two counties a much stronger punch but ultimately delivered more of a glancing blow to most communities.
That's not to say the area was unscathed. Communities in southern Sarasota County experienced severe damage. On Thursday, the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office reported that two people in the county had died. In an update Friday, a sheriff's spokeswoman said the two deaths involved oxygen machines that became disabled due to power outages.
One victim was a 94-year-old man in the Palmer Ranch area and the second was an 80-year-old woman in north Sarasota. The victims are not related.
In Charlotte County, Gov. Ron DeSantis reported there were 12 deaths. More information was not available.
Officials along the Gulf Coast, including Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte, and many other areas of the state were still assessing the damage.
Building damage and flooding was far worse in south Sarasota County, including North Port and Englewood, which were closer to where Ian's eye went ashore, than to the north. Many buildings in Englewood have significant roof damage, while flooding in North Port has been severe.
Despite the lack of surge, it was still a hit that stung, with widespread reports of downed trees, fences and signs, damaged structures and moderate flooding for the counties as a whole.
The flooding was also poised to worsen, as water from rainfall to the north flowed south in the Peace and Myakka River basins, which converge in Charlotte County.
Some neighborhoods in southern Sarasota County experienced catastrophic damage, including the Holiday Park manufactured home community in North Port, where hundreds of homes were destroyed.
North Port was especially hard hit, with Mayor Pete Emrich calling the damage "devastating" and "citywide." Sarasota Memorial Hospital's freestanding emergency room in North Port was closed Thursday because of damage.
Communities farther north fared much better. In the city of Sarasota, initial assessments indicate that damage primarily is limited to downed trees and utility lines, with minimal to minor structural damage to homes, city spokeswoman Jan Thornburg said Thursday afternoon.
Manatee County recovery
Manatee County officials reported no deaths connected to Ian as of Thursday afternoon, one home that was destroyed and 20 homes that sustained major damage.
"We dodged a pretty significant bullet, but we have a lot of work to do," said County Administrator Scott Hopes.
Manatee County officials said they were sending resources south to help with recovery in some of the hardest hit areas in the region in Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties.
Crews were making progress in Manatee County with almost all roads cleared, and power being restored to intersections and lift stations.
As of Friday morning, 205 of the county’s 738 lift stations that move sewage water were still not operational, although generators are being sent to more than 100 lift stations. Residents were asked to continue to be vigilant with water usage, limiting toilet flushing, doing dishes and showering.
Utilities have been restored on Manatee's barrier islands, which were re-opened, but the beaches will remain closed until further notice as crews work on removing debris.
County officials have documented $10.5 million in residential damage and $4.4 million in commercial damage, but those numbers are expected to climb. A total of 11 people have been rescued.
The water is still rising in the rivers in eastern parts of the county, so some roadways have been closed for the next few days.
Hopes said that county operations, including trash collection, landfill operations and inspection services, will be back to normal Monday.
How did Sarasota do in Ian?
Sarasota County Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett said they are still assessing the situation as there are still line breaks in the utility system. The plan is to get water to the barrier islands, but they need to turn on the sewer system first before they can turn the water on.
Mylett said the northern crews are responding more quickly than the harder hit southern areas who haven't been able to assess some areas. Once water is turned on, Mylett said there will be a 48-hour boil water notice in place.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Venice is caring for an influx of patients since hospitals in Charlotte and Lee counties were damaged during the storm, hospital officials said in a tweet Friday afternoon.
Sarasota County officials tweeted that solid waste suspended collection services for Friday due to extensive damage sustained to the contractor's facility, and the county and Waste Management are currently evaluating the routes to determine when regular collection services will resume.
Officials tweeted that they will open four Neighborhood Points of Distribution for residents in need of water, ice, food or tarps. Residents should be ready to show proof of residency. The distribution sites will operate over the weekend and Monday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the following locations: Hyundai of Venice, 200 Jacaranda Blvd., Venice; San Pedro Catholic Church, 14380 Tamiami Tr., North Port; Twin Lakes Park, 6700 Clark Road, Sarasota; Englewood Center Plaza, 200 S. Indiana Ave., Englewood.
Lack of surge a major factor
The lack of storm surge damage will make the recovery in Sarasota and Manatee much smoother.
Coastal communities south of where Ian’s eyewall made landfall on Cayo Costa island seem to have suffered the worst from the surge.
Manasota Key is just to the north of the landfall area and only sustained wind damage, which downed a lot of trees on the barrier island. There was access on and off the island over the north bridge, which had a post down blocking one lane but was otherwise intact.
Matt walked the beach and explored around the island Thursday and said every property she saw escaped major damage. There was no noticeable beach erosion.
Among those who live on the north end of Manasota Key, Matt believes only two couples stayed for Ian. The other was Dr. Ed and Sandra Spoto.
Matt’s house was unscathed. The Spoto’s house was as well.
“We’ve lived on the key for 20 years and we’ve been through several hurricanes and my wife and I have always felt secure enough in the quality of our homes that we didn’t need to leave,” Spoto said.
The Spotos live on the bay side of the island, overlooking Lemon Bay. Ed Spoto said he didn’t notice any rise in the bay’s water level.
Spoto watched the storm through his hurricane-resistant windows.
Asked if there was ever a moment where he was worried, Spoto said “No.”
His wife laughed.
“That’s because we drank a bottle of wine,” she said.
Manasota Key was without electricity, cell phone service and water as of Thursday morning. Sandra Spoto said the biggest frustration was that they lost all communication and couldn’t let family members know they were safe. Cell phone service was out across much of southern Sarasota County Thursday.
“That was the worst because I knew people were worried,” Spoto said.
Herald-Tribune Staff Writers Anne Snabes and Gabriela Szymanowska contributed to this report. Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Hurricane Ian didn't deliver knockout punch to Sarasota-Manatee region