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Search, recovery, assessments begin day after Hurricane Ian wreaks havoc in Lee County

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Lonnie Garretson cries on Thursday (9/29/2022) upon seeing damage to mobile homes and flooding in Suncoast Estates in North Fort Myers. "This hurts deeply," said Garretson. Garretson has lived in the trailer park community since 1967.

Search, recovery and damage assessment efforts got started via land, sea, and air Thursday in the most devastated portions of Lee County.

At a briefing by county officials at the Lee County Emergency Operations Center, County Manager Roger DesJarlais said the county and partner agencies' efforts were aided by helicopters provided by the Lee County Sheriff's Office.

"I can tell you that, you know, in all these years, I've not seen damage to Lee County from a storm like this," DesJarlais said. "When you take a look at the barrier islands, particularly from the air, it's very clear to see where the storm came on shore. And then just churned with 140 mile an hour winds over the islands for some period of time. Probably the greatest amount of damage and decimation is at Fort Myers Beach."

DesJarlais said the county's infrastructure continues to be assessed.

"We know that the utility system's county-wide potable water and water treatment systems have failed," he said. "We are searching for the source of those things today. And I would hope that we would have those resolved over the next day or so. But in the meantime, there's a boil-water order."

The county manager said there was extensive damage to the buildings on Sanibel and that bridges to Pine Island had all failed.

Tropical Weather
Wilfredo Lee/AP
A damaged causeway to Sanibel Island is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian , Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, near Sanibel Island, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

"So right now you cannot get to Pine Island by vehicle," he said. "Likewise, there are five failures, structural failures, on Sanibel causeway, there are five sections of roadway that have just fallen away. We are working with those cities to make sure that we're getting proper resources to the islands. The sheriff will talk with you in just a moment about some of his rescue efforts that are underway."

Bridge inspections were being conducted across the county he said with help from Florida Department of Transportation bridge engineers along with county engineers.

"We hope to have all the bridges inspected ... by sometime tomorrow. In the meantime avoid them if you can," DesJarlais said. "We cannot guarantee safety on all of them. And when you think about the failures that have taken place on the Sanibel Causeway and the bridges on the way to Pine Island, you know I would never have thought that those bridges would fail the way they have so exercise an awful lot of caution."

Later Thursday the county Department of Transportation closed Big Hickory Pass Bridge due to damage from Hurricane Ian.

The closure of the bridge, which is on the south end of Estero Island between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach, is effective immediately.

During a bridge inspection today, engineers identified deficiencies, leading to the closure. Lee DOT is working with the Florida Department of Transportation.

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An American flag flies at half-mast on Thursday (9/29/22) afterr Hurricane Ian damaged hundreds of mobile homes in Suncoast Estates in North Fort Myers.

DesJarlais said there are a number of helpful resources coming to the area including state and federal urban search and rescue teams.

"We anticipate they will be in Lee County sometime today, " he said of the federal USAR teams.

DesJarlais also said the curfew put into place yesterday is now county-wide. Previously, Estero officials could not be reached and the village was the only non-curfew area.

He said there were also just 4,000 people in the county's 15 shelters.

"I think it's reasonable to expect that those shelters will begin to fill up a little more. We have space for about 40,000 people," he said. "And so if you need sheltering and you can't make your way out of town to more comfortable accommodations then you can come to the shelters."

DesJarlais said efforts were being made to increase water, ice, and food supplies in Lee County.

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Stephen Hatchet and his wife Crystal salvage what they can on Thursday (9/29/22) after Hurricane Ian destroyed their mobile home in Suncoast Estates in North Fort Myers. Hundreds of families in Suncoast have been displaced by the hurricane.

"So, over the next several days you'll see more and more semi tractor trailers loaded with water and ice and food showing up in the county. We will publicize to the best of our ability so that everyone will know where they can pick up water and those supplies," he said.

Several times during the early mid-morning hours Thursday, convoys of rescue and related vehicles were seen coming north on I-75.

An assessment of the county's more than 400 traffic signals was being made.

"Many are just simply missing ... torn from their places ... and they're just gone," he said. "So over the next week or so, we will be will be rebuilding and fixing all of those traffic signals."

On the topic of storm debris, DesJarlais said the county contracted with a debris removal contractor.

"Some of you may recall after Hurricane Irma five years ago there was hundreds of 1,000s of cubic yards of vegetative debris on the ground ... but it doesn't appear to be as much this time."

He stressed that residents should not bring your yard waste from the storm to the solid waste facilities right now. Instead place it at the curb for pickup after the Oct. 3 resumption of waste removal service.

He said there is also an avenue for those looking to donate funds to help those affected by Ian. Details will be posted later on Facebook and county websites.

Michael Braun
All 400 Lee County traffic signals will be assessed for damage from Hurricane Ian.

Sheriff Carmine Marceno reminded county drivers to take care at intersections especially with traffic lights that no longer work.

"Please stop and take an extra minute to be certain when you cross an intersection. Don't just assume you got the right away," he said. "There's major intersections that don't have any lights, there may be a stop sign on the on the pavement, but you got to stop and really pay attention if you are going to be out."

County Commissioners Brian Hammond, Ray Santelli, and Mike Greenwell also spoke, encouraging residents to be thoughtful, kind, and courteous as the search, rescue, and rebuilding efforts get underway.

"I am so confident in the team that we have assembled here with the sheriff's office and the federal and state partners, who are coming to help us with our county manager and the team, that we have here working for you in the Emergency Operations Center," Hammond said. "Trust me, we know and we see, and we feel every bit about as bad as it is out there. We see how bad it is out there ... we are going to rebuild. Absolutely."

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