FT. MYERS, Fla. – Hurricane Ian killed 109 people in 19 Florida counties, making it one of the deadliest storms in recent history.
ABC Action News’ I-Team explained what caused these deaths and the simple steps that could have prevented most of them.
“The calm before the storm,” Mitch Pacyna said, recounting a cellphone video he posted on his facebook page September 25, three days before Hurricane Ian landed at his Fort. Myers Beach House.
The sun was shining and the gulf, located a block from his home, shimmered.
Pacyna moved to Ft. Myers Beach of Illinois 27 years ago after retiring from his job at Federal Express.
His friends said he never missed an opportunity to cheer on the Chicago Bears or the Chicago Cubs.
“Always had a smile on his face. Always a nice guy,” said Mike Yost, who considered himself one of Pacyna’s best friends on the island.
“His place was like right on the gulf, basically. Beach access was open with parking right in front of his house,” Yost said.
“We’re gonna release this one”
Pacyna and Yost decided not to evacuate, even though local emergency officials warned residents they were directly in the hurricane’s path.
“They told us a mandatory evacuation on the beach, but we’ll get through it,” Pacyna said in a video he posted Sept. 27, the day before Hurricane Ian hit.
As Hurricane Ian approached, Pacyna’s Facebook timeline became tragic.
Pacyna stayed with her longtime partner Mary and her dog Lulu.
“We probably have 24 hours to evacuate safely,” said Adam Montellean emergency management expert who is currently Vice President of the Olson Group, Ltd. He was a member of the FEMA advisory board.
Montella said when he worked as a local emergency manager, he used any means necessary to convince people of the importance of evacuating.
“I’ve been handing out Sharpie pens to people, and if they totally refuse to leave, please write your social security number, next of kin on your body somewhere so we can identify you after the storm,” said Montella.
Pacyna’s Facebook timeline showed how bad the weather was at 8 a.m. on September 28.
“He probably made the really bad decision to stay,” he said in a video he posted at 8:12 a.m.
The rain was pouring down and the wind was howling. At 10:32 a.m., the storm surge began pushing water down Pacyna Street.
“Surge is coming. He’s already coming down the street,” Pacyna recounted. “Okay, let’s hope for the best.”
Montella said when evacuation orders are called, you must leave.
” You must listen. You can’t outrun the water,” Montella continued.
“16 years old…never seen a river on our street,” Pacyna showed in a video. “Here it goes down in our block.”
On the other side of the island, Yost crouches.
He said even a quarter of a mile from the gulf, the water was rising rapidly outside his house.
“It was about a foot, then it was nine in a few minutes,” Yost said.
“Oh my God! Wrong decision!” Pacyna posted at 10:56 a.m. as her patio furniture and grill floated down the street.
“Most homes are completely underwater at 15 feet,” Montella said. “As we have seen during Ian and other storms, this wave can come far inland. Especially at high tide.”
“It doesn’t stop yet. If it goes a little higher, we might have to get on the roof,” Pacyna said at 12:24 p.m. as the water rose to the top of her landing.
Pacyna couldn’t swim.
“The water just came in all over the island,” Yost said.
In his latest video, car alarms go off as cars pass. The front yard has become part of the gulf.
“Okay, (sic) we’re terrified!” Pacyna said in her last post.
Mary survived by holding on to a railing as the house flew away.
“She and her neighbor stayed out in this weather for hours, holding out,” Yost said.
Pacyna’s body was found a few days later.
He was among dozens of people who died after refusing to evacuate.
“Everything avoidable. Most of these deaths are drownings. They died because they couldn’t swim. They are caught in their homes or vehicles,” Montella said.
According to medical examiner reports, 55 people drowned, including seven Cuban refugees whose boat sank. Others died from accidents.
Damon Utterback was trying to escape the storm by breaking a window.
“I saw his body hanging out the window,” Yost said.
Power outages have resulted in deaths after preventing people from using oxygen and other medical devices. Reports say some suffered medical episodes but were unable to get help.
Three people who lost everything committed suicide and an aid worker was shot and killed during an argument.
“People stayed because they said it couldn’t get any worse”
“It’s heartbreaking because it’s someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s grandparent, someone’s child. And it could have been avoided. is the real tragedy,” Montella said.
After the storm, Yost found a Cub pennant and empty stilts where Pacyna’s house once stood.
He lost his own home and business and nearly lost his life.
Yost said he would never ignore an evacuation order again, even if his neighbors choose to stay.
“They were like we went through Charlie, we went through Irma,” Yost said. “People stayed because they said it couldn’t get any worse than that. And, of course, it was much worse. “
A celebration of Mitch Pacyna’s life will be held at the American Legion in Franklin Park, IL on November 20.
According to Yost, Pacyna’s dog, Lulu, was found unharmed near her former home the day after the storm.