It’s been 11 days since Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 monster of a storm, cut across central Florida. Even in a state that’s no stranger to hurricanes, the destruction in the wake of Ian is staggering: more than 100 deaths, most by drowning; communities in tatters; the price tag for recovery estimated at more than $100 billion. We went to ground zero, on Florida’s southwest coast where Ian first roared ashore and where the hurricane’s fury was most severe.
As Hurricane Ian’s violence bore down on Sanibel Island, the Sprecher Family fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. This past Wednesday, one week after the tempest laid waste to the island, the family went back to see what was left of the place they had called home for almost 20 years.
Milissa Sprecher: Where are we? I can’t even tell.
Ian severed the causeway that connects Sanibel to the mainland, so the Sprechers returned by boat.
Milissa Sprecher: You wouldn’t even know this is home.
We were invited to go home with them to see the damage done when the Category 4 hurricane plowed into Florida. John Sprecher told us, the destruction was overwhelming.
John Sprecher: This place looks like it’s been bombed out. And I, you know, I remember our kids playing in the sand when they were a couple years old.
Milissa Sprecher told us she had trouble getting her bearings.
Milissa Sprecher: There’s no bridge, there’s no ferry right now, there’s nowhere to stay, there’s no running water, there’s no electricity, there’s no air conditioning, there’s nothing. Everybody on this island at this moment is homeless.
Their house is just a block from the beach, usually a few minute walk they said, but not this day. The path was covered with thick, tacky mud.
Milissa Sprecher: Watch the mud, ’cause you’re gonna– it’s very slick.
6,500 people live on Sanibel. The place the sprechers described as a tropical paradise now is a debris field. Cars tossed like toys by the storm surge, it stripped the asphalt off their road.
Bill Whitaker: This was paved?
Milissa Sprecher: This was paved.
As they approached the house, the scene was surreal – a beautiful Florida day, the kind that drew John and Milissa here from Wisconsin years ago, while the home and life they built lay battered under the sun.
Milissa Sprecher: I’m shocked.
They had held pool parties in the yard, celebrated birthdays and graduations in these rooms. Now with the roof gone, exposing the accumulations of a lifetime to the elements, they are salvaging what memories they can take on a small boat.
John Sprecher: Grandma and grandpa photos.
Milissa Sprecher: Yeah, grandma and grandpa photos. To be able to have photos and things that the kids have made and be able to take ’em, that’s huge.
Bill Whitaker: Yeah.
Milissa Sprecher: I’m floored that we have anything, anything.
Bill Whitaker: Have you been in touch with your insurance?
Milissa Sprecher: We have, yeah.
Bill Whitaker: Will you be able to build back what you lost?
Milissa Sprecher: I don’t know that, I don’t know.
John Sprecher: We don’t even know if we want to honestly.
Bill Whitaker: Really?
Milissa Sprecher: I would think a lotta people will be leaving this.
Bill Whitaker: Are the phones ringing off the hook?
Brian Chapman: Monday morning, we were getting about 15– 15 calls a minute.
Brian Chapman owns chapman insurance group, one of the largest independent insurance agencies in southwest florida, with about 30,000 customers, many who live on sanibel island and in hard-hit fort myers. Seven of his employees lost homes; his offices suffered water damage and lost power.
Bill Whitaker: With this hurricane, you had winds gusting up to 150 miles an hour. You had a massive storm surge. How do those two arms of this hurricane impact the reimbursements that your homeowners are gonna get?
Brian Chapman: That’s where it gets a little complicated because you have two policies, one for flood and one for wind.
Bill Whitaker: Why is that so complicated?
Brian Chapman: Well, did the wind damage happen first or the water rise? And was there wind damage before it flooded? And it’s hard to know the answer to that question.
And just 18% of Florida homeowners have flood insurance.
Bill Whitaker: So why so few?
Brian Chapman: Because it’s expensive. But not as expensive as what just happened.
Chapman says he fears Ian will only exacerbate a persistent problem in Florida’s insurance market. Eighty percent of all homeowners’ insurance lawsuits in the country are filed here. Most big insurers have scaled way back, small insurers are being squeezed. Six went out of business just this year.
Bill Whitaker: What has all of this done to premiums?
Brian Chapman: Double-digit, triple-digit rate increases in the last 24 months.
Brian Chapman: My policy was personally $3,500, then $7,000, and now $10,000. And that’s not including the flood insurance.
Bill Whitaker: Who can afford that?
Brian Chapman: It’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable.
Bill Whitaker: We were on Sanibel Island yesterday and the destruction is widespread. If you’re out there what hope do you have to recover from this?
Brian Chapman: It’s gonna be a long road to recovery. The ones that forgoed insurance, I’m certain that there will be some that will sell their real estate or their land.
All of this was wrought by a hurricane that rapidly spun itself into an electrified killer. Energized by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Ian took just two days to grow from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm, packing 150 mile per hour winds and stirring up a storm surge that drowned coastal communities in 12 feet of water. That one-two punch was compounded by catastrophic rains. The storm dumped more than 20 inches over central Florida, swelling rivers and flooding neighborhoods in a swath that stretched across the state.
Bill Whitaker: You knew this was gonna be a monster?
Bobby Quinn: I did.
As Ian approached, Tampa-native Bobby Quinn, a former Air Force weather forecaster, private pilot, and tech company founder, wanted to help, so he drove south into the heart of the hurricane.
Bobby Quinn: Kinda hard to uh–to leave this spot…
And got more than he’d bargained for.
Bobby Quinn: There was no place to go. There were trees flying by when I was sitting in the truck and wind that would have flipped my truck if I had moved out from behind that wall. I tried at one point and the wheels came off the ground.
After 13 harrowing hours, he started to put his talents to work. Quinn runs a Tampa-based tech start-up called Paypixl, that crowd-sources drone imagery and organizes it on an app. When Ian hit, he repurposed his site so evacuees could view images of their homes and assess the damage, free-of-charge.
Bobby Quinn: You see the debris field, you see the destruction in the back. Now you can turn off the satellite imagery and see the pre-event. This is what it looked like before the storm.
Bill Whitaker: How about that?
Bobby Quinn: And if we add in our street level imagery, somebody can click in and see what that house looks like–
Bill Whitaker: Oh, wow.
Bobby Quinn: –from the front after the storm.
Bill Whitaker: So you’ve got the whole event. Before, after, ground level.
Bobby Quinn: That’s correct.
After posting some of his work on social media – he was inundated with requests. More than 700 came from a densely populated, spiraling development 35 miles north of Sanibel called Rotonda West.
Bobby Quinn: This is Rotonda West. This is the neighborhood. And the pink dots that you see are each individual image that was taken in the neighborhood.
To build his database, Quinn incorporated satellite images with ground level pictures he took driving street by street.
Bill Whitaker: So that– that huge circle that we saw, you were going down every cul-de-sac, going up and down, getting pictures on both sides of the street?
Bobby Quinn: Every road. Every house.
Bill Whitaker: How long did that take you?
Bobby Quinn: It took me nine hours. 117 miles.
Bill Whitaker: And how many pictures did you end up with?
Bobby Quinn: Just over 8,000.
He filmed inside some houses.
Quinn’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed, he told us he’s been contacted by an insurance company and Florida’s emergency operations center, seeking his data.
Bill Whitaker: Why’d you do this?
Bobby Quinn: If you’ve ever felt hopelessness or despair or the anxiety that comes with the unknown, you know it’s a terrible feeling. We know that we can use technology in a way that really hasn’t been used before to get to the right audience, to get to the loved ones and family members. We want to quell that anxiety for them.
A prescription for that may lie 12 miles northeast of hard-hit Fort Myers. Babcock Ranch is the brainchild of eco-conscious developer and former professional football player, Syd Kitson.
Syd Kitson: So when you look at this building, this just went through a Cat-4 hurricane.
Kitson and his partners purchased 91,000 acres in 2006 — bigger than Manhattan — with a dream to build America’s first environmentally friendly, hurricane-proof, fully sustainable small town.
Syd Kitson: We are the first solar-powered town in America. We have a solar field that’s 150 megawatts. But that’s just part of the story.
Bill Whitaker: How many people live here now?
Syd Kitson: About 5,000 people. And, you know, eventually–
Bill Whitaker: And you’ve got plans to grow to what?
Syd Kitson: About 50,000 people.
Kitson rode out the storm in his lakeside home in town.
Syd Kitson: And I remember sitting here. I had the weather on. And the weather person says, “Well, this category four hurricane is now heading for Babcock Ranch.” And not only is it heading for Babcock Ranch, but it’s gonna be on the eastern side of the wall which is the worst place to be.
Bill Whitaker: How long did the hurricane sit over you–
Syd Kitson: It was about eight to ten hours.
He took video with his iPhone. At the height of the tempest, there were white caps on the lake.
Syd Kitson: So as soon as the sun came up the next morning, I jumped in my car and I started drivin’ out. And the only damage were a few downed trees and a few shingles off the roofs.
Bill Whitaker: That’s it?
Syd Kitson: That’s it. And so our recovery was maybe a day?
Babcock Ranch was designed to accommodate Florida’s ecosystem with indigenous plants and natural waterways for drainage; it was built 25 to 30 feet above sea level to avoid storm surges. All electric and phone lines are buried.
Bill Whitaker: Aren’t you just lucky that you happen to be on a higher level than most of the parts of Florida that got washed away?
Syd Kitson: Yes, I think that’s important, but not when it comes to the wind and– and flooding and rain. And so if that infrastructure’s not built properly, you will have homes that get flooded. You will have that wind damage.
No one here lost power. Syd Kitson took us to see this massive solar array.
Syd Kitson: What you see is 440 acres.
700,000 panels, built by Florida Power and Light. They withstood Ian’s brutal battering.
Syd Kitson: There’s a lotta water, but you don’t see a single panel that’s been dislodged. And there was quite a bit of wind that came through here over the last few days.
Bill Whitaker: Gusts of 150 or more.
Syd Kitson: Gusts of over 150, and it did not take a single panel outta here, which is really just remarkable.
After seeing the devastation on Sanibel Island, it felt strange to see children playing in parks here, people enjoying themselves, eating at waterside restaurants. While neighboring communities struggle with Ian’s aftermath, the deadliest hurricane since Katrina.
Produced by Graham Messick and Marc Lieberman. Associate producers, Cassidy McDonald, LaCrai Mitchell and Jack Weingart. Broadcast associates, Natalie Breitkopf and Eliza Costas. Edited by Craig Crawford.