(FORT MYERS, Fla.) — Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s southwestern coast, search and rescue efforts are ongoing, as the region takes steps to recover from the devastating storm.
Lee County — home to Fort Myers and the barrier islands Sanibel and Pine — was especially hard-hit by the powerful Category 4 storm, with Fort Myers Beach frequently referred to as “ground zero” by local officials.
At least 55 people died due to Ian in the coastal county, according to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office — more than half of the 100 storm-related fatalities statewide reported so far.
The damage in the county is widespread: Power infrastructure has been destroyed, boil water notices are in place, debris — from trees to boats — block roads, more than half of traffic lights are out and barrier islands are inaccessible by car.
As the community attempts to take stock of the storm’s impact, it is still unsafe for many residents to return to the area, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno warned.
“I need patience,” Marceno said during a press briefing Tuesday. “We know people want to get back. They want to see their homes. They want to see if they have a home. They want to grab a photo album — things that cannot be replaced by insurance or money.
“We want to make sure we give people when it’s safe, the first second it’s safe, a chance to do that,” he continued.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said it could be “30 days as a minimum” before people are safely able to go back.
“It is really dangerous to be in Fort Myers Beach right now,” Desjarlais said during a press briefing Monday. “There is no power. There is no water.”
Search and rescue efforts ongoing
More than 840 rescues have been conducted in Lee County since Ian made landfall on Sept. 28, Marceno said Tuesday.
Marceno said crews are currently following up search efforts of properties and identifying if anyone is in need or is unaccounted for, as the search and rescue mission continues “around the clock.”
“We’re probably still another three to four days left in search and rescue and recovery,” he said Tuesday. “So that’s a rough time frame that could go in either direction.”
Desjarlais said it is unclear how many people are unaccounted for. Eight urban search and rescue teams are working to locate residences and if there are any deceased people in the rubble to preserve evidence before heavy equipment is brought in, local officials said.
Restoring barrier island access
Ian knocked out the main modes of transport to several of Lee County’s islands. The Sanibel Causeway, which connects the island to the mainland, and the Matlacha Pass Bridge, which connects nearby Pine Island to the mainland in Cape Coral, were destroyed.
The Florida National Guard has been airlifting vehicles and other assets onto Pine and Sanibel islands, as well as evacuating people. The U.S. Coast Guard has also been running waterborne evacuations for residents of the islands.
In the short term, the state Department of Transportation is working on building a temporary gravel bridge to Pine Island.
“These repairs are needed for first responders and residents to access the island, as well as other recovery efforts such as power restoration and debris removal,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said in a press release this week.
The bridge is on track to open by Saturday, officials said.
“This is not gonna be a bridge you’re going to want to drive 45 mph over … but at least you’ll have connectivity to the mainland,” DeSantis said during a press briefing Monday.
He said his administration would be trying something “similar” for the causeway to Sanibel Island, with a bid process underway.
The county is working on a temporary ferry service to assist residents of Sanibel Island, with boat access currently restricted to approved contractors and residents, Marceno said.
Turning on power and water
Nearly half of the county remains without power, according to state data.
DeSantis said Monday that the electrical co-op for the state of Florida will be sending 1,000 additional linemen from across the state to help Lee County’s power restoration efforts. The National Guard will begin flying electrical personnel onto Pine and Sanibel islands, he said.
The Lee County Electric Co-op has bumped up its restoration timeline to Saturday from Oct. 23 for all impacted areas except for Pine Island and Sanibel, the governor’s office said.
The water is slowly being restored as water pressure normalizes, Desjarlais said Monday. The Army Corps of Engineers is working to identify and assess several fractures in water infrastructure as part of the efforts to restore running water in Lee County. Some residents who have running water may be under a boil water notice.
In the meantime, the state and Florida National Guard have set up several distribution points for food, water and ice throughout mainland Lee County.
Public schools temporarily closed
Due to the lack of power and water, as well as damage to buildings, Lee County public schools are closed this week, the district said.
The damage to school buildings is varied, school leaders said.
“We have some schools that we believe are ready to open, others need minimal work,” Lee County School District Superintendent Christopher Bernier said in a video message Monday. “Some of our schools will require significant repairs and, as expected, there are a few that have damage that may be beyond repair.”
Building inspectors are conducting more comprehensive assessments, and some students and staff may be relocated depending on the damage, he said.
“This is not going to stop us from opening our schools as soon as we can,” Bernier said. “While we are not opening this week, we are certainly not waiting until January.”
ABC News’ Matt Foster and Darren Reynolds contributed to this report.
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