It's been a long few days for the people who survived Hurricane Ian's wrath in Southwest Florida.
On Saturday afternoon, Diane Valenti was waiting at the end of a flooded tributary with her daughter, Cheryl.
“We can’t get nobody on the phones today,” Diane said.
Neither woman has heard from two of their immediate family members since Ian hit. They say they are waiting for a search and rescue worker to emerge from the water with any news.
“Of course, we’re worried,” Cheryl said.
The two women are not alone in their angst. Countless families in Southwest Florida are also waiting to hear from loved ones, many of whom chose to ride out the storm on Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island rescue workers refer to as “ground zero.”
The island does not resemble the stretch of land that stood before Hurricane Ian brought 150mph winds and more than 10 feet of storm surge.
A half-collapsed home sits in the middle of the road. Power lines are toppled for as far as the eye can see and debris is everywhere. One resident estimates 70% of the buildings there have not just been damaged, but completely flattened.
“We have gone to every structure, and we have done our best to account for everybody who has either not been accounted for or we have found and have been able to let their families know that they are safe,” said Iggy Carroll, a spokesman for Florida Task Force 2, the first search and rescue group to arrive to Fort Myers on Wednesday night.
“I’ve been to multiple deployments. I’ve been to Katrina, and this is one of those big ones,” said one of the team members as he walked through broken homes.
The team is working 20-hour shifts with four-hour periods of rest as they comb the entire island for survivors. They refer to the first 48 hours on the ground as a “hasty search,” where they prioritize searching homes with the most damage for survivors. Saturday was the first day of the “primary search,” where they double-back on many buildings to make sure no one is still in there.
In the three days they have been searching, Carroll says they have helped as many as 750 people. More than 200 people were freed after being found under debris.
“We will work until our efforts are no longer needed,” said Carroll.
On the other side of the bridge that separates Fort Myers Beach from the mainland, a woman was getting off a Jitney with two suitcases. She said she was just helped by first responders like Florida Task Force 2 after she was stuck in her condo.
“This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” she says through tears. “I’m shaken up after being driven from Bay Beach Lane through Times Square. I have never ever seen devastation like that in my whole life.”
Back at the mouth of the overflowing tributary, Diane perked up.
“That must be the rescuer,” she said, pointing at a man emerging from the brush.
He has his phone in his hand, a picture of their loved ones on it.
“From the man himself,” he says laughing. “He wanted you to hear he was OK from him.”
Many people will not be as fortunate as Diane and Cheryl; President Biden has called Hurricane Ian, “possibly Florida’s deadliest hurricane.”