Hurricane Ian devastates SW Florida: Sanibel Causeway will need to be rebuilt, governor says

Hurricane Ian swamped southwest Florida, leaving behind a damaged power infrastructure in two counties, turning streets into rivers and damaging two bridges, including the Sanibel Causeway.

Governor Ron DeSantis provided an update Thursday morning, saying the electric grid for Lee and Charlotte counties will likely need to be rebuilt, described Hurricane Ian's devastation in the area a "500-year flood event."

Aerial view of Sanibel Causeway (Credit: Lee County Sheriff's Office)

He said the Sanibel Causeway and Pine Island Bridge are both impassable. They suffered structural damage and will need to be rebuilt.

Part of the Sanibel Causeway that collapsed (Credit: WZVN-WBBH)

Sheriffs in southwest Florida said 911 centers were inundated by thousands of stranded callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. The U.S. Coast Guard began rescue efforts around daybreak on barrier islands near where the Ian struck, DeSantis said. Fire departments fanned out in flooded areas as well.

According to Lee County officials, people were stuck in attics and even roofs of some buildings, reports FOX 4. On Wednesday, East Naples deputies performed 30 water rescued.

Overnight, Punta Gorda city officials said their water supply emptied. 

"They are pumping at a rate of over 13 million gallons per day and cannot keep up," they said.

Thursday, the Sanibel Lighthouse appears to still be standing. It's located on the eastern end of the island. It was built in 1884 and given to the City of Sanibel in 2004 for restoration purposes.

Side by side images showing a photo of the Sanibel Lighthouse from 2016 (left) and a distant shot of it the morning after Hurricane Ian made landfall (right)

While the exact figure for injuries and fatalities is not confirmed, the Lee County sheriff said the number of deaths could be in the "hundreds." 

During a phone interview with Good Morning America, Sheriff Carmine Marceno said there are thousands of people who still need to be rescued. Lee County includes Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, and Captiva Island.

"I don’t have confirmed numbers, but I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds," he said during the interview. "There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued."

MORE: Florida man, 72, dies after going outside during Hurricane Ian to drain pool, deputies say

Another angle showing the road damage leading up to the Sanibel Causeway

The major hurricane pushed a wall of storm surge accumulated during its slow march over the Gulf, flooding Fort Myers roadways even before making landfall in Coya Costa.

Flooding in Fort Myers

FORT MYERS FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 29: Stedi Scuderi looks over her apartment after flood water inundated it when Hurricane Ian passed through the area on September 29, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida. The hurricane brought high winds, storm surge and rain t

In Naples, the first floor of a fire station was inundated with about 3 feet of water, and firefighters worked to salvage gear from a firetruck stuck outside the garage in even deeper water, a video posted by the Naples Fire Department showed. 

Naples is in Collier County, where the sheriff’s department reported on Facebook that it was getting "a significant number of calls of people trapped by water in their homes" and that it would prioritize reaching people "reporting life-threatening medical emergencies in deep water."

In Port Charlotte, along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm surge flooded a lower-level emergency room in a hospital even as fierce winds ripped away part of the roof from its intensive care unit, according to a doctor who works there.

Water gushed down onto the ICU, forcing staff to evacuate the hospital’s sickest patients -- some of whom were on ventilators — to other floors, said Dr. Birgit Bodine of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital. Staff members used towels and plastic bins to try to mop up the sodden mess.

"As long as our patients do OK and nobody ends up dying or having a bad outcome, that’s what matters," Bodine said.

Boats floated onto flooded streets and were swept ashore.

TOPSHOT - Residents inspect damage to a marina as boats are partially submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on September 29, 2022. - Hurricane Ian left much of coastal southwest Florida in darkness early on Thursday, bri

The medium-sized hospital spans four floors, but patients were forced into just two because of the damage. Bodine planned to spend the night there in case people injured from the storm arrive needing help.

For WINK-TV, the wall of storm surge that Ian brought entered the newsroom set in Fort Myers. 

According to one of their meteorologists, Matt Devitt, they lost power and were unable to continue broadcasting. By 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, he said the worst surge was behind them and water levels were slowly lowering.

"This was, without a doubt, the strongest hurricane in Southwest Florida history," he wrote on Facebook. "Stay tough, we’re almost through it. I’m thinking of all of you. We WILL rebuild back to the community we know and love."

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Brittany Hailer, a journalist in Pittsburgh, contacted rescuers about her mother in North Fort Myers, whose home was swamped by 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water.

"We don’t know when the water’s going to go down. We don’t know how they’re going to leave, their cars are totaled," Hailer said. "Her only way out is on a boat."

FORT MYERS FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 29: Brenda Brennan sits next to a boat that pushed against her apartment when Hurricane Ian passed through the area on September 29, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida. Mrs. Brennan said the boat floated in around 7pm. The hur

President Joe Biden has since approved a disaster declaration for Sunshine State on Thursday morning following Ian's trek across the state.