As the water begins to recede and the sheer scope of damage comes into view, there are already indications that Hurricane Ian, which is now churning northward as a tropical storm after pummeling Central Florida overnight and this morning with high winds and heavy rain, could be the deadliest storm in the state’s history, with President Joe Biden warning Floridians to brace for a “substantial loss of life.” As of earlier today, 13 people were confirmed dead as a direct result of the storm. The final death count, however, is expected to climb well into the hundreds as rescue efforts continue.
Although the slow-moving monster of a storm—one of the strongest in both U.S. and Florida history—veered east before taking a direct hit at the sprawling Tampa Bay metro area as initially feared, communities along the stretch of Southwest Florida coast south of Tampa—Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda, and on—took an extreme battering with record-breaking winds, torrential rain, tornados, and unprecedented storm surge all playing into the mix. Many of these Gulf Coast communities, particularly in wealthy Collier County, are home to some of the most expensive—and vulnerable—real estate in the country, and the damage, thus far, appears nothing short of catastrophic. The devastation, however, is widespread and horrific and extends beyond the region’s tony gated enclaves, impacting everyone from condo-dwelling retirees to those living in mobile home communities.
In Naples, the city’s historic pier that stretches 1,000 feet out and over the Gulf of Mexico was completely destroyed by the storm, its pilings torn out from beneath it by 20-foot waves. First built in 1899, the pier has been rebuilt and renovated several times over the decades after other major storms. North of Naples in Lee County, the town of Fort Myers Beach was reduced by Ian to a scene of utter ruin. The town’s namesake pier was also lost to the storm along with a wide swath of homes and businesses surrounding it.
Not too far from Fort Myers Beach, entire sections of the 3-mile-long Sanibel Causeway, which links mainland Florida with Sanibel Island, a 12-mile barrier island known for its relaxed vibes, seashells, and modernist architecture pedigree, were wiped away. “Where the bridge rises from the mainland toward the island, one of the first sections of the span has disappeared. Crumbled pavement lies near the water’s edge. The rest of the bridge stretches forward, unreachable,” wrote the Tampa Bay Times. The causeway is the only way to access Sanibel (and neighboring Captiva Island) save by boat or helicopter, which has impeded rescue efforts on the flood-ravaged island which, per The New York Times, is home to roughly 6,500 full-time residents. The causeway, which is comprised of two bridge spans and two manmade causeway islands, will need to be rebuilt as will the Pine Island Bridge, a bascule bridge providing access to another beloved barrier island, was also destroyed by Ian.
The surge-inundated water system in Lee County, which includes the cities of Fort Myers and Cape Coral, is also on the brink, with officials issuing a boil water notice and hospital evacuations taking place across the county. More than 2.6 million Floridians—and not just those in hardest-hit Southwest Florida—remain without power per the latest Florida Power & Light estimates. It’s likely that large swaths of the state’s electric infrastructure will have to be rebuilt.
As of this writing, Ian, a storm that’s history-making ferocity was made possible by climate change, is back at sea and churning over the warm waters of the Atlantic. The storm is anticipated to gain significant strength—and likely regain Category 1 hurricane status—before making second landfall on the South Carolina coast tomorrow. That region is already battening down the hatches.
We will continue to update this article and publish new dispatches with a focus on Ian’s devastating impact on the built environment, including on crucial infrastructure and historic buildings in Southwest Florida and beyond.