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‘Everything is gone.’ River still rising from Ian imperils rural Southwest Florida towns

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 10/1/2022 Nicholas Nehamas, Jessica DeLeon, David Ovalle, Miami Herald
Rising waters from the Peace River left areas of Arcadia underwater on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river hadn’t crested yet and water was still rising. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Rising waters from the Peace River left areas of Arcadia underwater on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river hadn’t crested yet and water was still rising.

As the death toll continued to rise Friday from Hurricane Ian, search-and-rescue teams began turning attention to the inland counties of Southwest Florida, where a dangerously engorged river collapsed a bridge, trapped residents in homes and destroyed businesses.

The overflowing Peace River had already flooded to historic levels, swamping Arcadia in DeSoto County — a poor, agricultural region often known as Florida’s Heartland. In Arcadia, Enrique Sánchez’s painting business and machine shop were lost.

His two buildings are normally about a tenth of a mile from the banks of the river. Like many Floridians, he does not have flood insurance.

“All my equipment, everything is gone,” said Sánchez, who has lived in DeSoto County for more than three decades, as he surveyed the damage Friday afternoon. “We never thought we would have this kind of flooding. It all turned into a lagoon, a lake.”

He added: “This is so, so bad.”

Hurricane Ian made landfall near Punta Gorda in Charlotte County on Wednesday with winds of 155 miles per hour and torrential rains, a storm that could be the deadliest, most costly storm to ever hit Southwest Florida.

Catastrophic flooding from the Peace River in Arcadia left the Peace River Campground under water on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river had not crested yet, and waters were still rising. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Catastrophic flooding from the Peace River in Arcadia left the Peace River Campground under water on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river had not crested yet, and waters were still rising.

At least 35 deaths had been reported in the state by Friday afternoon, a toll that may climb. Human remains were spotted in at least one submerged house in Lee County. The Florida District Medical Examiners Commission had confirmed 10 deaths — most of the victims died by drowning, including a 68-year-old woman who on Thursday was swept into the ocean by a wave in Volusia County. Two died in car collisions and a 71-year-old man from Sarasota County died from head injuries when he fell off the roof while putting up rain shutters in preparation for the storm.

For the rural counties next to Charlotte, the historic water levels of the Peace River were complicating recovery efforts. And much of the initial response was directed toward the affluent coastal cities.

The Peace River, which meanders south through Hardee and DeSoto counties before flowing into Charlotte Harbor at Punta Gorda, broke the previous record of 20 feet on Thursday. On Friday, it reached a peak of nearly 24 feet and was slowly receding, according to the National Weather Service. The river’s water level is normally about 12 feet. The river is not forecast to return to normal levels for another week or so.

A man who said he rode his bike from Orlando with two dogs in his backpack asked a boater for a ride across the flooded S.R. 70 in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS A man who said he rode his bike from Orlando with two dogs in his backpack asked a boater for a ride across the flooded S.R. 70 in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

“The river is 300 yards out of its bank,” said Arcadia Police Lt. Troy Carillo, who on Friday afternoon was going door-to-door making sure people in flooded homes had left.

READ MORE: Historic storm surge. Record flooding. Ian’s lesson in the rising risk of hurricanes

The danger in the rural counties was apparent as more than 1,000 rescue personnel members were continuing to comb homes across Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis, at a press briefing on Friday morning, said “they are going to be doing more and more inland [searches] in some of our counties, inland portions of Charlotte and Lee, but also Hardee and DeSoto counties.”

In Arcadia, Enrique Sánchez points to an area flooded by the rising waters of the Peace River on Sept. 30, 2022. The rural areas of Southwest Florida were hit hard by rains from Hurricane Ian. © Nicholas Nehamas/Miami Herald/Miami Herald/TNS In Arcadia, Enrique Sánchez points to an area flooded by the rising waters of the Peace River on Sept. 30, 2022. The rural areas of Southwest Florida were hit hard by rains from Hurricane Ian.

“There were effects far inland; these rescue personnel are sensitive to that.”

DeSantis said 99 percent of Hardee was without electricity and about 70 percent of DeSoto’s customers.

In Hardee County, Sheriff Vent Crawford told WFTS-ABC that a Florida Highway Patrol trooper was driving over the SR-64 bridge overnight when it collapsed because of the rising waters. He swam to safety in the dark.

“Really and truly, it’s probably, today, at a historical high if not the highest ever,” Crawford told the station.

A camper sits submerged in floodwaters in the Peace River Campground in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS A camper sits submerged in floodwaters in the Peace River Campground in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

After landfall, Ian cut directly through Hardee, causing the river’s waters to spill out, submerging roads, inundating cars and rising to the level of roofs in the town of Wachula. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it. I’ve been here 62 years, and the river has never been this high. Ever,” one Wachula resident, Len Miller, told WFTS as he was driving his high 4-wheel drive truck to help people escape their homes.

A truck sits on a section of road flooded by the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS A truck sits on a section of road flooded by the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

Back in DeSoto County, county officials, in fliers distributed throughout the rural county, warned that the river hadn’t crested yet, making already flooded areas even more dangerous. Two residential neighborhoods, Hidden Acres and River Acres, have been submerged. The DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office said it had rescued at least 24 people from those areas, mainly using airboats.

Residents wait to get supplies by boat from a section of flooded S.R. 70 in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Residents wait to get supplies by boat from a section of flooded S.R. 70 in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

No deaths or missing persons have been reported so far.

“It looks like the Peace River is going to crest in a day or two. We are seeing unprecedented flooding. This is historic. I am talking to people who have been here for 90 years. No one has seen anything like that,” said Chad Jorgensen, public safety director for DeSoto County.

DeSoto County Fire Rescue moves a man on a stretcher to be transported by airboat across a flooded area of S.R. 70 in an area flooded by the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS DeSoto County Fire Rescue moves a man on a stretcher to be transported by airboat across a flooded area of S.R. 70 in an area flooded by the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

The sprawling, family-owned Peace River Campground, a favorite of Floridians for decades, was “wiped out,” the owners wrote on their Facebook page. ”We no longer have an office. And limited communication on here as we don’t have power and need to conserve batteries. The roads are not accessible and we are trapped in,” the owners wrote.

Flood waters caused by Hurricane Ian submerged the rural town of Arcadia in Southwest Florida. © Nicholas Nehamas/Miami Herald/Miami Herald/TNS Flood waters caused by Hurricane Ian submerged the rural town of Arcadia in Southwest Florida.

In Arcadia, a 12-person search-and-rescue team was on its way from Monroe County Fire-Rescue. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had already set up shop — John Fenn, the agency’s district superior, had to catch a motorboat ride with local residents so he could get to the county’s emergency operations center and help coordinate federal resources.

“This county is hit hard,” Fenn said. “Their county is split in half, which is making it really hard for [first responders] to get to calls but they are doing it.”

In the meantime, residents are using their own airboats to get around.

Kamarie McDonough and her husband, Coleman, were waiting on the east side of the Peace River, as the floodwaters lapped up on West Oak Street. A neighbor was piloting their airboat to pick them up and take them back across the flooded river.

That was easier than trying to find a way to navigate their truck through watery roads.They live in a home on the river’s west side, where they huddled during the storm Wednesday night.

“You could feel the walls vibrating, and we have a brick house,” Kamarie McDonough said.

Hurricane Charley passed through here in 2004. But it didn’t do nearly the same amount of damage as slow-moving Ian, said Bill Martin, who moved to Arcadia 50 years ago from South Florida. (He and his wife, Colleen, were sweethearts at Hialeah Senior High School.)

“Charley was quick,” Martin said. “This thing was a giant Charley. And it just sat here over us.”

Another resident, Tony Milton, braved the floodwaters three times — on each trip cradling one of his Pomeranian-Husky mixes in his arms as he waded from his ruined home to the safety of dry land.

At the Arcadia Mobile Home Park, Hurricane Ian wrecked at least six units. Nobody was injured during the storm. © Nicholas Nehamas/Miami Herald/Miami Herald/TNS At the Arcadia Mobile Home Park, Hurricane Ian wrecked at least six units. Nobody was injured during the storm.

Poppy, Daisy and Houdini have all made it. He still had to fetch Zombie, Smokey and Doobie. Then there are his two much larger Labrador-Pitbull mixes, Lotus and Bentley. They were all waiting anxiously on his bed, eyeing the rising water.

“This is unbelievable,” said the panting, soaked Milton, whose home was flooded by early Thursday.

Peace River Campground sign sits in an area flooded by the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Peace River Campground sign sits in an area flooded by the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

Milton still doesn’t know where he and his dogs will go. One thing is for sure: They can’t stay here. He moved to Arcadia from New York City two years ago and bought a house — but not flood insurance.

“They didn’t say I needed it,” he said. “I’m going to have to go to FEMA.”

A pavilion sponsored by the American Legion in a section of Arcadia sits in an area flooded by the Peace River on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS A pavilion sponsored by the American Legion in a section of Arcadia sits in an area flooded by the Peace River on Sept. 30, 2022.

It wasn’t just the water that wreaked havoc on Arcadia.

A jacuzzi floats in the flooded waters of the Peace River in a historic area of Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS A jacuzzi floats in the flooded waters of the Peace River in a historic area of Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

At the Arcadia Mobile Home Park, the potent winds wrecked at least six units. On Friday, pieces of metal and wood were scattered everywhere, along with a blue-and-pink floral mattress.

A footbridge rises from the flooded area of the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS A footbridge rises from the flooded area of the Peace River in Arcadia on Sept. 30, 2022.

“There’s no power, no water, no telephones,” said Carol Knickerbocker, a resident who rode out the storm in a local Baptist church.

Hurricane Ian ripped half the roof off Roger and Francis Cole’s mobile home while they were sitting on the front porch at about 7 p.m. Wednesday. “It sounded like a train coming through,” Roger Cole said. “We thought the whole thing was going to fly away.”

A portion of roof of the Peace River Campground’s buildings pokes from the flooded waters of the Peace River, which left areas of Arcadia under water on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river hadn’t crested yet and water was still rising. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS A portion of roof of the Peace River Campground’s buildings pokes from the flooded waters of the Peace River, which left areas of Arcadia under water on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river hadn’t crested yet and water was still rising.

The Coles didn’t think the storm would be this bad. They didn’t want to leave before it hit. “We’ve been through so many,” Roger Cole said. “We went through Charley. I couldn’t count how many others.”

Catastrophic flooding from the Peace River in Arcadia left the Peace River Campground under water on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river had not crested yet, and waters were still rising. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Catastrophic flooding from the Peace River in Arcadia left the Peace River Campground under water on Sept. 30, 2022. Officials warned that the river had not crested yet, and waters were still rising.

While cleanup and search-and-rescue efforts continue, Arcadia Mayor Keith Keene said he’s trying not to speculate about what the damage will mean for his city, which is surrounded by orange groves and cattle pastures and has a population of roughly 8,200 people.”Arcadia is a resilient town, neighbor helping neighbor,” Keene said.

But as the town looks to rebuild, a traditional pillar of its economy — the citrus industry — likely suffered severe damage.

“I am certain the loss of fruit will have a huge impact on an already reduced crop,” Keene said. “Harvesting typically begins this month.”

Miami Herald staff writers Alex Harris and Ana Ceballos contributed to this story.

©2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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