Locals woke to a storm which had exploded into a behemoth overnight. It is as if Hurricane Ian was designed for destruction, not just bringing 155mph wind but storm surge – a tsunami-like wall of water – up to 12 feet high in places.
Fort Myers, a town on the Caloosahatchee River, was among the worst affected, both by the Hurricane Ian storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater flooding inland.
We were staying at a hotel just outside the main impact zone, five miles from the coast. Rooms were fully booked with evacuated residents who had mainly moved from the coast inland.
As winds began to pick up around midday many of us saw out the storm together in the lobby and bar of the hotel. We didn’t see the worst of it but big potted plants were bowled over by the wind and a tree was uprooted in the car park.
Hours later three people arrived at the hotel drenched from head to toe, shivering and wearing life jackets. Jennifer Pribanic and her parents, Debby and John Schaefer, had chosen to remain at home in Fort Myers, pulling down their storm shutters and boarding up the windows. But they were caught unawares by the sheer power of the water.
“The water was coming in through the cracks of the doors, and the water just kept coming,” Jennifer said. “Within 10 minutes it went from my ankles to my chest and the door that goes out to garage broke off the hinges. Water gushes in, the next thing you know it’s above our heads, every piece of furniture in the house was floating.”
Jennifer and her parents were rescued by a neighbour’s friend with a boat.
“We were floating, we were trying to stand on furniture, the water was way above our heads,” she said. “I saw a boat and I started screaming. If the boat hadn’t arrived I don’t think we would be here.”
More than 2.5million people had been told to evacuate but many made a calculated decision to remain at home. They shored up their defences with sandbags and boarded up their windows. But few were expecting a storm with the ferocity of Hurricane Ian which covered such a large area.
It is only when day breaks that the full scale of the damage will be seen but it is expected that this will be one of the costliest hurricanes on record for Florida.
Long after the wind and water has subsided, people will be counting the cost of this catastrophe.