This Florida county was ready for Hurricane Ian – but not flooding

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ARCADIA, Fla. — Tia Lias thought she was doing a good thing, driving her kids to get Chinese food the day after Hurricane Ian tore through their rural town 50 miles inland from the coast .

She thought they would appreciate a hot meal, a choice of foods. After all, they had survived the catastrophic storm largely unscathed. Even their hens were doing well, although their chicken coop was gone.

But when the three crossed the low bridge over the Peace River in their Kia Sorrento, they discovered the restaurant was without electricity and serving only a handful of dishes. They ordered crab wontons and pork spare ribs and headed to their home, about 50 miles from Fort Myers.

They did not succeed.

“We were only in town 15 minutes. It happened so fast,” Lias told USA TODAY.

“It was” the flood waters gushing out of the Peace River. Normally meandering in lazy loops along the west side of the city, the river overflowed Thursday, flooding up to 2,000 homes and at least 100 motor homes in which people were living, authorities said.

Flooding from 20 inches of rain from Ian blocked several roads in DeSoto County, turning some neighborhoods into islands. In addition to flooding homes, the waters engulfed a gas station and the Peace River Campground, where about 150 people lived year-round, officials said.

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The area typically receives around 51 inches of annual precipitation, which means Ian dropped half a year’s worth of precipitation in just a few hours. Officials said despite the damage, they had not received any reports of serious injuries or fatalities.

Persistent, widespread power outages and poor cell service on Sunday hampered evacuation efforts via airboats with the help of the Florida National Guard. The authorities were distributing water and cooked meals to the stranded people who did not want to leave.

Lias, on the other hand, sat on the city side of the flood and struggled with what to do. His mother was stuck in their home with dwindling water, food and gas supplies. She wanted Lias and her children to come home, to go out together.

An airboat captain evacuates people from flooded areas in DeSoto County, Florida, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, after Hurricane Ian hit.

But Lias thought it made more sense to move closer to services that still work. On Sunday, they had already slept three nights in their SUV. His daughter Khloe celebrated her 9th birthday in the backseat, with no gifts – they are waiting for her at home.

“Nothing is normal. It makes you feel like your life is in shambles, but so is our whole county,” Lias said, sitting on the grass by the river, a yellow ribbon floating above. her head. “If it wasn’t for me having a change of clothes in the car, we wouldn’t have anything.”

Local officials, the Florida National Guard and a growing army of volunteers are ferrying supplies to isolated areas with small boats and swamp airboats, and more volunteers have been handing out hot meals, baby supplies and other necessities to people who usually live a five-minute drive from the store. Boats buzzed between the newly dubbed mainland and the island area to the west.

DeSoto County has about 35,000 full-time residents, although the population increases in the winter with snowbirds fleeing the northern United States and at harvest time with migrant workers picking oranges, watermelons and gourds.

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“It’s a blessing that people can help out at this time because these are tough times,” said Lizbeth Manriques, 20, as she helped her younger brother juggle several pieces of bread and a polystyrene container. rice and beans.

Authorities said they were ready to evacuate anyone who wanted to leave, but acknowledged the speed at which rising waters caught them off guard.

“We know about hurricanes, but flooding is a new thing for us,” DeSoto County Commissioner JC Deriso said. “The storm, our community was pretty well prepared. But the flooding was quite unexpected. The rivers go up and down every year. But what we saw was once in a lifetime. At least we hope so.”

Volunteers distribute food in a flooded area in DeSoto County, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, after Hurricane Ian hit.

Deriso said Ian’s relatively less wind damage may have lulled some people into a false sense of security. That’s what happened to Melanie George and their family, who sailed ashore on Sunday afternoon to pick up a generator and some food.

“The storm passed and you could still travel,” said George, 55, clutching plastic bags of food and drink. “And then all the water came.”

Reporting how severe the damage is, Governor Ron DeSantis traveled to Arcadia on Sunday afternoon after touring the damage in coastal areas. Like Deriso, the governor said rescuers would continue to work as long as needed – but it was up to Mother Nature to lower water levels before a real recovery could begin.

“It’s such a big storm, bringing so much water that you basically have what was a 500-year flood here in DeSoto County and some of the neighboring counties,” DeSantis told reporters. “At the end of the day, the waters have to recede more. It makes it difficult for people. We understand that.”

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The cab of a pickup truck sticks out of water in a flooded area in DeSoto County, Florida, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, after Hurricane Ian hit.

Sitting on the sidewalk by the river, Lias said she was glad DeSantis took the time to visit her hometown.

Her parents have lived in DeSoto County for about 20 years and she bought property about 14 years ago, leaving behind the noise of Fort Myers for the peace of the country, where she could raise her children. She worried out loud about how much school they were missing after getting back on track after COVID-19 and worried about having enough money to buy more food and gas. .

But most of all, she worried about what to do next: Try to get home to stay with her mother? Row home and force his mother to leave? Or just stay on the shore and sleep in the car again.

As she spoke, Khloe paused to remind everyone of her birthday and voted to go home so she could open her presents.

“We can’t control Mother Nature,” Lias said. “Even though you want things to be the same again, you know they will never be the same again.”

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