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How Ian Sent Boats onto Land and Cars into Water

If you live in an evacuation zone, will you be able to stay with friends or family nearby who don’t — or, will you plan to go to a shelter? If you’re not in an evacuation zone, do you have a room for others to stay in?

A flooded neighborhood street in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 29, 2022, from Hurricane Ian.
A flooded neighborhood in Orlando, Fla., due to Hurricane Ian on Sept. 29, 2022.
(TNS) — The boats are everywhere.

Carried onto lawns, spread across the street, framing the highway, piled up in marinas. They’re blocking waterways, some still bobbing on the surface, others half-sunk.

It’s as if an angry child upset at losing an old-fashioned board game turned the whole thing upside down in a fury, pieces scattering everywhere.

That’s what Hurricane Ian did to boats — and cars and kitchen appliances and entire homes — in Southwest Florida and portions of the Florida Keys at the end of September. Boats landed on land. Cars washed into the water. Homes flooded or disappeared.

Florida’s coastal communities were dotted with abandoned or damaged boats before the storm, clogging navigational channels, putting the waterways at risk for toxic pollution, messing up the marine economy.

Ian has raised the problem to new levels.

“It was the most numbing, humbling thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Amy Rizzo, 53, who lives in Fort Myers Beach. “The things you would see floating by. There were freezers. Boats. There were cars, cars everywhere.”

The shrimp boats of San Marcos

On San Marcos Island, just east of Fort Myers Beach, huge steel-hulled shrimping boats are piled up on top of each other.

“The issue is that it’s not only a business but a community. Rebuilding includes getting the shrimp boats back in the water, fixing the docks, rebuilding the supply shop, repair the unloading area, most of all restoring humanity within our shrimp family,” Anna Erickson, with Erickson and Jensen Marine Supplies, wrote in a GoFundMe message to raise money for the battered shrimping fleet.

The Erickson family has been fishing for the much-sought-after pink Gulf of Mexico shrimp for 70 years.

Under the bridge connecting the island to Fort Myers Beach, half-sunken yachts stick out from the surface of the water. Boats and cars picked up by Ian’s floodwaters litter yards and business property.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a visit to Fort Myers Beach that 869 vessels and vehicles have been identified so far on residential and commercial properties.

Threats to navigation

The nearshore waters are hazardous for boaters to navigate, with debris floating or lying just beneath the surface.

Gary Cullen, a 50-year-old boat dealer from Cape Coral, is one of the many area boaters volunteering to ferry supplies to heavily damaged Pine Island since the Sept. 28 storm. He said the water is so dense with debris that the channels have shifted in some areas.

“I blew up my gear case and snapped the drive shaft on my Yamaha 300 after hitting so much debris when we were shuttling people and supplies,” he said.

Waterways in Naples, about 30 miles south of Fort Myers, are filled with so much storm wreckage that police officers are affixing buoys to pieces of debris so boaters can see the hazards to their navigation.

“Our marine patrol officers have located all types of debris in the waterways to include vehicles, sunken or damaged vessels, construction debris, marine timbers, parts of broken docks and vegetation debris, just to name a few,” said Lt. Bryan McGinn, a spokesman for the department.

The officers are towing debris to spots for pickup by contractors, McGinn said. The buoys are for larger items that can’t easily be towed.

Saltwater surge

And it’s not just wayward boats making life miserable.

Amy and Jay Rizzo decided to stay in their stilted Laguna Shores house in Fort Myers Beach despite the warnings ahead of Hurricane Ian that the storm would likely bring devastation.

A street, Estero Boulevard, separates Laguna Shores from the beach. So when the saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico surged across the road on Sept. 28, the water, and the debris, quickly spread through the neighborhood.

The water reached the bottom step of the couple’s elevated — newly constructed — home, destroying all of their belongings underneath, but sparing them from the saltwater intrusion that wrecked so many other houses in the area.

All they could do was watch. And what a frightening show it was, Amy Rizzo said. She’s a nurse, and her 63-year-old husband is a physician. They’ve seen a lot of trauma and heartache over the course of their careers, but this was different.

Besides the boats floating by, their Ford Expedition SUV did, too, ending up on the dock in the back of their home.

“We just rebuilt our dock three weeks before the hurricane, and now my car is sitting on it. It floated right here from where my new car is, around the side of the house and landed on my dock,” she said. “I’m waiting on Geico to come. They say they have to have a crane in the front that goes over the house to lift it up.”

In the Florida Keys

While not nearly as devastating, the Keys also saw a surge as Ian made its way past the island chain preparing for its direct hit on the Fort Myers area. Many homes in the historic Bahama Village area of Key West were flooded with ocean water.

The hurricane also dislodged about 150 boats, scattering them across the water and roadways, and posing an environmental hazard to the ecologically sensitive Keys, said Capt. David Dipre, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency tasked with documenting all derelict vessels in the state.

As the wind and surge moved the boats from their docks and mooring fields, the vessels dragged across seagrass, vital to the archipelago’s marine habitat.

“If they continue to sit there, they’re going to keep doing damage,” Dipre said.

Ernesto Hernàndez is a fisherman who lives on his cabin cruiser boat that now lists on its side in the shallow ocean water off Sugarloaf Key. He said he would have moved the boat farther away from the Lower Keys, but because the forecast had the storm’s center staying far west of Key West, he wasn’t expecting such a strong surge.

“This was ugly, ugly. To lift that ship up there, it must be said that the waves were five to six meters high,” Hernàndez said as he motored a dingy back from taking supplies off his larger boat.

Compounding the problem of boats displaced by Ian are dozens of migrant boats left on the beaches and in the mangroves of the Keys as a result of the largest maritime exodus from Cuba to South Florida in nearly a decade. Documenting these vessels for removal is also part of FWC’s responsibility, but they’ve been arriving faster than they can be managed.

The FWC catalogs the boats and records their whereabouts, then turns that list over to Monroe County, which puts out a bid for contracted salvage companies that will eventually remove the vessels, said FWC Officer Jason Rafter, who serves dual roles with the agency — spokesman as well as searching for derelict boats.

Mark Cockerham, an Upper Keys backcountry fishing guide, has started towing the boats himself and restoring them for decorative purposes. That’s not recommended by the FWC, but as long as people aren’t trying to make them seaworthy again, there’s no effort underway to stop people from taking the vessels.

Cockerham said the main reason he’s been collecting the migrant boats — many of them makeshift monuments to innovation, welded-together hulls made of everyday items like fuel drums and highway barriers and powered by old Russian diesel truck engines — is to reduce the environmental damage when they leak fuel into nearshore waters.

“They’re really cool boats, and it’s a shame to see them come over here and just sink,” he said as he towed a wooden migrant vessel from Indian Key Fill. “But, there’s been so many of them here lately that everybody’s kind of ignoring them, and there they are on the bottom, and there’s diesel and oil everywhere.”

The human cost

Hurricane Ian was one of the deadliest and most damaging storms to hit Florida in decades. More than 100 people died, more than half in Lee County, home to hard-hit Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island and Sanibel. Many people drowned in the surge.

“It’s just been awful. It’s like a horror story. I can’t even stand to come down here because I can’t stand looking at all of this. It really gets to you,” said JoAnn Knobloch, who said her husband Karl succumbed to the floodwaters underneath their two-story Estero Boulevard home.

Karl, who just turned 80, was near the garage as JoAnn was gathering cats that she rescues in the area. She said she turned to look for her husband around 4 p.m., and watched as the water swept him away.

“It happened in a matter of seconds,” JoAnn said.

The Knoblochs collected cars, and most of their most prized automobiles were destroyed in the flood. A Honda smashed through the concrete wall leading to their backyard. Two cars, including a 2003 Ford Mustang GT, went to the bottom of their canal.

“This was a beautiful car,” Knobloch said. “It only had 50,000 miles on it. It’s an ’03. One of the best years. I’m just sick about it.”

Cleaning up

Now that the massive search-and-rescue effort is winding down in Southwest Florida, an equally immense and difficult mission is underway: cleaning up the mess Ian left.

Roads are mostly clear, even on Fort Myers Beach. But debris and destruction are everywhere.

Many homes and businesses are rubble. Those that survived were gutted by seawater, then stripped by owners hoping to save them from creeping mold.

“It’s bad. There’s so much water damage, most of these houses will be infiltrated with black mold, and we can’t get to them fast enough for it to make a difference,” said Shay Walker, a mold mediator who went to Fort Myers from New Orleans after the storm.

“Even though the water line was 6 1/2 feet, it’s damaging up to 12 feet because it splashed underneath their houses,” Walker said. “A lot of people are at 100 percent content loss in their houses. They lost their stoves, their refrigerators, bathtubs, all the things that are, you know, normal life, they’re gone. A lot of people lost all their wedding photos, all their clothing. It’s all gone."

Banged-up, windowless cars still line Estero Boulevard.

The state has created a website — — where Lee County residents can apply to have wrecked boats, cars, motorcycles and ATVs removed from their properties.

Trucks with huge steel containers make the rounds stopping at pickup spots along the streets, then use claw cranes to retrieve massive heaps of scrap.

The trucks drop off the debris in a field at Lovers Key State Park, where huge piles of everyday items that were once personal belongings are lined up in rows several football fields in length.

Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said that crews have already collected enough debris “to fill 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”


The DeSantis and Biden administrations have stated that they have cut through the typical bureaucratic processes to speed up debris removal and infrastructure repair so the rebuilding of the hardest-hit areas can get underway quicker.

With so many homes destroyed, both Florida and FEMA have also started programs allowing people to live close to their wrecked homes as they rebuild. That means providing travel trailers and RVs, direct leasing for ready-for-occupancy housing, as well as offering landlords reimbursements if they repair hurricane-damaged apartments and rental houses.

Tom McCool, federal coordinating officer with FEMA, said that more than 700,000 Florida households have applied for assistance, and the government expects another 130,000 people to follow suit.

“We want to keep you in your community where you go to church, or whatever house of worship — where the kids go to school and where you’re comfortable,” McCool said. “That’s our Number One goal.”

©2022 the Florida Keys Keynoter (Marathon, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.