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At Fort Myers Beach, search and rescue teams look for survivors on an island of rubble

<i>CNN</i><br/>Five days after Hurricane Ian left parts of southwest Florida in ruins
CNN
Five days after Hurricane Ian left parts of southwest Florida in ruins

By Leyla Santiago, William Brown and Theresa Waldrop, CNN

Five days after Hurricane Ian left parts of southwest Florida in ruins, search and rescue teams continued to go door-to-door, or ruin-to-ruin, looking for survivors.

A FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force from Virginia arrived in the hard-hit Fort Myers area Sunday, and on Monday were knocking on doors on Fort Myers Beach, a small island town that’s now an island of rubble.

“Rescue,” members yelled after knocking on each door. Some roamed condominium corridors with dogs trained to look for survivors.

“We’re going through structure by structure, doing what’s called a secondary search,” Virginia Task Force 2 Leader Brian Sullivan told CNN. “We’re looking for anybody that might have been left behind.”

At least 100 people in Florida were killed by the storm and more than 1,900 have been rescued. More than 500,000 Floridians remained without power Monday, and many may not have it restored soon as the grid infrastructure was decimated in some areas. Many are without clean tap water.

The city of Fort Myers — on the mainland northeast of Fort Myers Beach — is the seat of Lee County, where 54 of the deaths were reported.

In the wake of the destruction, county officials have been criticized for issuing the first mandatory evacuation orders only a day before Ian’s landfall, despite emergency plans that called for it sooner.

Officials have stood by the timing of those orders. “I am confident in our county manager, our leaders, our governor, all of us in law enforcement that we got that message out at the right time,” Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told reporters last week.

On Fort Myers Beach, boats are scattered everywhere on land that is now dry. Where a house stood, only stairs remain, leading to nowhere. The town’s once pulsing tourist center is gone.

“The devastation is hard to put into words. It’s really weird, because some structures will be almost completely fine,” Sullivan said. “And then there are other structures that there’s nothing left, just the staircase and the pilings that the house used to sit on.”

The FEMA search and rescue team is “right on the edge of the survival window” — when those who made it through the hurricane might still be found alive, Sullivan said.

Officials on Monday closed the island to everyone but search and rescue teams. Two women who had survived the monster storm — only to be stuck there with no power and no water — were fortunate to run into the Virginia FEMA team Monday and get a ride out.

“I’m relieved that I’m actually going to be able to get off the island and be with my family,” Connie Miller, one of the women, told CNN. “We’ve just been surviving and surviving and we’re getting to the point where we were running low on our water.”

Miller said that by the time she realized she needed to get out, it was too late. Hotels were booked up, and she feared getting stuck on the roads driving off the island, she said.

“God kept us together and gave us safety,” Miller said.

On Fort Myers Beach, the Virginia FEMA team estimates it will be “many months” before even basic services are running again, according to Sullivan. Local officials have echoed the same.

Some counties may not be back on the power grid for “weeks or months” because of the structural damage caused by the hurricane, said Eric Silagy, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light Company.

In Cape Coral, just southwest of Fort Myers, 98% of the city’s power structure was “obliterated” and will need complete reconstruction, Fire Department Chief and Emergency Management Director Ryan Lamb told CNN’s Jim Acosta Sunday.

As she prepared to leave her island home, Miller said she is now headed for Pennsylvania, her bag packed with winter clothes in anticipation of a long stay up north.

“I’m getting tired, so it’s time to go. Obviously, things weren’t going to get better, not for a long time,” she said.

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