Ian is likely Florida’s deadliest hurricane since 1935. Most victims drowned.


FORT MYERS BEACH, Florida — The water was running fast, so the women ran to the top floor of the vacation home they’d rented for Nishelle Harris-Miles’ 40th birthday and curled up on a bed together.

But the storm surge from Hurricane Ian gushed through the floor, lifting the mattress higher and higher until the four were slammed to the ceiling. Then the roof collapsed and a nail hit the neck of the woman they affectionately called Nene.

“Nene died there with us,” Chanel Maston, 48, said, sobbing as she talked about the ordeal. “She breathed her last with us.”

As stories of death emerged from the destruction in southwest Florida, President Biden, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and local authorities clashed over Ian’s casualty count. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told “Good Morning America” ​​the death toll could run into the hundreds. Biden warned Ian could be the “deadliest hurricane in Florida history”. The governor has downplayed the death toll in daily briefings and says the tropical cyclone’s numbers won’t come close to the 1928 hurricane that killed a record 2,500.

Still, Ian becomes the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935. State authorities have documented 72 deaths so far — slightly less than Hurricane Irma’s toll in 2017, according to the National Hurricane Center. County sheriffs have reported dozens more, bringing the total to at least 103. That makes Ian more deadly than Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

According to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, which counts direct and indirect deaths, Ian’s storm surge claimed the most lives. Just over half of Ian’s victims have drowned, the latest data shows. This underscores what experts call an often overlooked reality: water usually kills more people than wind.

A storm surge as high as 5 meters swept through houses, trapping some people inside while others were swept into brownish rivers. A woman was found entangled under her house in wires. Many of those who drowned were elderly.

“I don’t want to scare people, but they need to understand: The leading cause of death will be drowning,” said W. Craig Fugate, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “Burprise doesn’t sound inherently deadly unless you understand it.”

A week after landing, rescue teams continue to wade through devastated communities – often alone a vague idea of ​​who might be buried in the rubble. Lee County manager Roger Desjarlais admitted at a news conference Monday that officials do not know how many people they are looking for. Rescuers rely on cadaver dogs.

“We have nothing,” said Virginia Task Force 2 leader Brian Sullivan as his team searched the Red Coconut RV Park in Fort Myers Beach, the storm’s zero point. “The sheriff was trying to compile a list of missing persons. We have not received any information about that area.”

Counting the dead is an imprecise science — there’s no set number from Hurricane Katrina, for example — and over the years, officials have debated what qualifies as a storm death. Hurricane Maria’s toll initially ran into the dozens, with officials including only drownings and blunt trauma. But an analysis of excess deaths later put the total in the thousands. Many elderly people died in Puerto Rico when the island’s power outages lasted for months and medical care was difficult to access.

DeSantis initially indicated that indirect deaths may not be counted.

“In Charlotte County, for example, they recorded a suicide during the storm,” he said the day after the storm. “They also let someone die of a heart attack because you don’t have access to emergency services.”

But the agency in charge of cataloging the deaths, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, sticks to a broader definition.

“We also count motor vehicle accidents when someone tries to evacuate and they are seaplanes,” spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said. “If someone had a heart attack while medical services were unavailable. … If there was any suspicion that it was related to a hurricane, that’s a storm death.”

Water — storm surge, rainfall, inland flooding and surf — directly cause 90 percent of tropical cyclone deaths in the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center. The biggest indirect killers: car wrecks, carbon monoxide poisoning, electrocution and heat. And the deadly danger remains after the skies clear, said Jay Barnes, a North Carolina hurricane historian.

“There are often deaths while cleaning up,” he said. “Everything from carbon monoxide poisoning and chainsaw victims to people falling from rooftops.”

Many Americans underestimate the power of hurricane flows, disaster experts say. They tend to represent strong gusts of wind and falling trees — perhaps because the country’s best-known categorization scale measures wind. Some who are at risk choose to squat at home. Critics have criticized Lee County authorities for failing to order Fort Myers Beach residents to evacuate more quickly.

“There’s an industry saying that you run from the water and hide from the wind,” said John Renne, director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “We need to communicate the risk in storm surge areas much better.”

Mitch Pacyna, 74, a Fort Myers Beach resident, had endured tropical storms for 27 years. His social life was so packed that Pacyna’s friends jokingly referred to him as “the mayor.”

On Facebook, he documented the storm’s approach, noting that the forecast had suggested Ian would head toward Tampa. When provincial officials ordered his barrier island to be cleared before the hurricane hit, Pacyna chose to stay behind.

“Oh my God…wrong decision,” he lamented in a video as the water flooded his street. Soon, the tide came crashing down on the house he shared with his partner, Mary, sweeping away the bar he’d built in his garage.

Pacyna’s last message: “WE ARE DOSES.”

His family announced his death the following day.

“Everyone loved him,” says Scott Safford, co-owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn, a lemon-yellow hotel that once stood near Pacyna’s home. Now it doesn’t exist.

For rescue teams, the search for victims is complicated by a lack of information about who was left behind and where the storm surge would have taken them.

Once a beachfront oasis, the Red Coconut RV Park was smashed into pieces of roof, walls and knick-knacks. Dozens of members of Virginia Task Force 2, one of the urban search and rescue teams deployed in Florida, were digging through the rubble on Tuesday when three cadaver dogs discovered a possible human scent. They found only household items, including an errant refrigerator filled with beer.

“It’s just total destruction,” said Sullivan, the team’s leader.

There was little left of the vacation home that Nishelle Harris-Miles’ friends and family had booked for her birthday.

The women from Dayton, Ohio, had heard that Ian was on his way to Tampa Bay and thought the airline or the lessor would cancel them if the storm became a real threat to Fort Myers Beach.

They had arrived the Tuesday before Ian struck and were trying to make the most of it: dancing indoors, taking silly photos and singing “Happy Birthday.”

“We were knocked to the ceiling,” Maston said of what came next. “We were fighting against the ceiling and there was water everywhere. Before you know it, the roof went down and we went with it.”

They were trapped in the rubble for 14 hours, she estimated. Finally someone heard their screams, built a makeshift plank and pulled them out. A rescuer descending from a helicopter confirmed what Maston already knew: Nene was dead.

“We didn’t want to leave her,” she said.

Nene was the mother of two sons and two daughters. A home helper who cared about her patients. A tourist who had saved up for that trip.

“We could never have imagined it,” Maston said. “I saw bodies hanging out of the windows. I’d never seen anything like it – only on TV.”

“We didn’t know,” she said. “We just didn’t know.”

Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report. Paquette reported from Washington.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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