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Fort Myers residents returned to battered island, Sunday

Homes lay in ruin on Fort Myers Beach, which was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall on Sept. 28.

Homes lay in ruin on Fort Myers Beach, which was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall on Sept. 28.

Ten days after Hurricane Ian tore through his small, tight-knit waterfront community of Fort Myers Beach with a storm surge estimated as high as 18 feet, Jerry Altrip boarded a bus and made his way back from the mainland across the causeway that connects to the small barrier island.

Since Ian struck on Sept. 28, Altrip had only seen pictures of the devastation from afar, mostly taking in footage of crushed homes, buildings and shredded landscape through aerial footage gathered by television stations.

Still, the long-time island resident told NBC Nightly News reporter Kathy Park that he remained hopeful his property had somehow survived the hammering winds and roiling waters that plowed through the “little island” that he “loved.”

It didn’t.

“My house is gone,” Altrip told the reporter. “Lot of good memories.”

Altrip was one of the first residents and business owners permitted back onto Fort Myers Beach since Ian roared ashore with 150 mph winds and devastating storm surge. The group was shuttled by bus Saturday afternoon across the Mantazas Pass Bridge that connects the small, seaside community and barrier island to the mainland.

Earlier in the day Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said homeowners and renters would be permitted back on the island to see their properties and gather whatever possessions they could find. Trips Sunday across the bridge were to be staggered to cut down on large crowds that could hinder repair and recovery efforts.

And dangers remain. Broken glass, crushed concrete and sharp metal are scattered about the island, which has no power and no running water.

What residents will find, the town’s mayor said Saturday, is likely to come as a shock, even to residents warned of the devastation ahead of time.

“The island was covered in 12 to 18 feet of storm surge,” Fort Myers Mayor Ray Murphy said Saturday. “There’s no water and no power.”

A video that recorded the storm in real time — but which was condensed into two minutes and 29 seconds for YouTube — shows the immense power of the ocean sweeping across the six-square-mile spit of land. It was recorded by Max Olson Chasing.

It begins with water flowing down the town’s main street. The water soon gets higher and white-capped waves begin crashing into homes, buildings and the tops of palm trees. Eventually a home is ripped from its foundation and swept away by the torrent before disappearing beneath the white caps.

More than 100 people in the storm’s path were killed as Ian rushed ashore. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said last week that at least 54 of them lived in the county. Many of those victims drowned after choosing to remain on Fort Myers Beach. Rescue workers sifting through the rubble and under the floods did manage to rescue 29 people on the island, including one person late last week.

One of those who didn’t make it was a gregarious waitress at the Plaka Restaurant on the island’s Times Square. Bonnie Gauthier, 59, according to the Tampa Bay Times, loved the New England Patriots, blueberry muffins and donuts and the catchphrase: “Shake ya Bon Bons.” She spent her final night on Fort Myers Beach, taking part in a time-honored tradition for locals: a hurricane party.

“That’s just what we do,” her niece Samantha Thomas told the Times.

Still, town Councilman Bill Veach told WBBH Channel 2 in Fort Myers that with all the debris and the dangers, the rescue effort has been “nothing short of miraculous.”

“I’ve heard an estimate of 80-90% of the structures on the island won’t be fit for habitation again,” he said.

The massive storm, which crashed through Sanibel Island and Cayo Costa before striking the mainland, caused significant damage to other areas.

Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Saturday that the state has partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to open shelters in 19 counties: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Flagler, Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lake, Lee, Manatee, Orange, Osceola, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns and Volusia.

DeSantis, who spoke from Fort Myers Beach on Saturday, said portable showers and restrooms have been installed for those who do return.

“It’s our hope that everybody is able to go back to their property,” said the governor. “I know there’s some people that are going to have really significant damage; some will have total loss; some may have damage that they’re willing to live in their house for, and if it’s safe, they have a right to do that.”

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Chuck Rabin, writing news stories for the Miami Herald for the past three decades, covers cops and crime. Before that he covered the halls of government for Miami-Dade and the city of Miami. He’s covered hurricanes, the 2000 presidential election and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting. On a random note: Long before those assignments, Chuck was pepper-sprayed covering the disturbances in Miami the morning Elián Gonzalez was whisked away by federal authorities.