Ian is probably Florida’s deadliest hurricane since 1935. Most victims drowned.

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — The water was rising rapidly, so the women ran to the top floor of the vacation home they had rented for Nishelle Harris-Miles’ 40th birthday and snuggled up on a bed.

But the storm surge from Hurricane Ian slammed through the floor, lifting the mattress higher and higher until all four were crushed against the ceiling. Then the roof collapsed, driving a nail into the neck of the one they affectionately called Nene.

“Nene died right there with us,” Chanel Maston, 48, said sobbing as she recounted the ordeal. “She breathed her last with us.”

As stories of death emerged from the destruction in Southwest Florida, President Biden, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and local officials clashed over Ian’s death toll. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told “Good Morning America” ​​the deaths could number in the hundreds. Biden warned Ian could be “the deadliest hurricane in Florida history.” The governor played down the deaths during daily briefings, saying the number of tropical cyclones won’t come close to the 1928 hurricane that killed a record 2,500 people.

Still, Ian is already shaping up to be the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935. State officials have documented 72 deaths so far – just shy of Hurricane Irma’s toll in 2017. , according to National Hurricane Center. County sheriffs reported dozens more, bringing the total to at least 103. It makes Ian deadlier than Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Ian’s storm surge claimed the most lives, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, which tallies direct and indirect deaths. Just over half of Ian’s victims drowned, according to the latest data, underscoring what experts call an often overlooked reality: water typically kills more people than wind.

A storm surge reaching 18 feet swept over homes, trapping some people inside while dragging others into brownish rivers. A woman was found tangled under her house in wires. Many of those who drowned were elderly.

“I don’t want to scare people, but they have to understand: the number one cause of death is going to be drowning,” said W. Craig Fugate, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Division of Management Florida ERs. “Storm surge doesn’t seem inherently deadly unless you understand it.”

A week after making landfall, rescue teams continue to wade through destroyed communities – often with only a vague idea of ​​who might be buried under the rubble. Lee County Executive Roger Desjarlais admitted at a press conference Monday that officials do not know how many people they are looking for. First responders rely on dead dogs.

“We have nothing,” Virginia Task Force 2 leader Brian Sullivan said Tuesday as his team roamed the Red Coconut RV Park in Fort Myers Beach, ground zero for the storm. “The sheriff’s office was trying to work to compile a list of missing persons. We have not received any information regarding this area.

Counting the dead is an imprecise science — there are no definite count of Hurricane Katrina, for example – and over the years officials have debated what constitutes a death by storm. The death toll from Hurricane Maria initially stood in the dozens, with officials including only drownings and blunt trauma. But an analysis of excess deaths then pushed the total by thousands. Scores of elderly people died in Puerto Rico as the island’s blackout continued for months and medical care was hard to reach.

DeSantis first indicated that indirect deaths might not be counted.

“For example, in Charlotte County they recorded one suicide during the storm,” he said. the day after the storm. “They also had someone die of a heart attack because you don’t have access to emergency services.”

But the agency responsible for cataloging deaths, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, adheres to a broader definition.

“We include motor vehicle accidents if someone tries to evacuate and they hydroplane,” spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said. “If someone had a heart attack while medical services were down. … If there was the slightest suspicion that it was related to a hurricane, it’s a deadly storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, water – storm surges, precipitation, inland flooding and surf – is the direct cause of 90% of tropical cyclone deaths in the United States. The main indirect killers: car accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, electrocution and heat. And the deadly danger lingers after the skies clear, said Jay Barnes, a North Carolina hurricane historian.

“Deaths often occur during cleanup,” he said. “Everything from carbon monoxide poisoning and chainsaw victims to people falling from rooftops.”

Many Americans underestimate the power of hurricane torrents, say disaster experts. They tend to imagine powerful gusts and falling trees – perhaps because the country’s best-known categorization scale measures wind. Some in danger choose to hide in their homes. Critics slammed Lee County officials for not ordering Fort Myers Beach residents to evacuate more quickly.

“There’s a saying in the industry that you run from the water and hide from the wind,” said John Renne, director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. . “We need to do a much better job of transmitting risk in storm surge areas.”

Fort Myers Beach resident Mitch Pacyna, 74, had withstood 27 years of tropical storms. His social life was so busy that Pacyna’s friends jokingly called him “the mayor”.

On Facebook, he documented the storm’s approach, noting that forecasts had suggested Ian would turn toward Tampa. When county officials ordered her barrier island to empty before the hurricane hit, Pacyna chose to stay.

“Oh my God…bad decision,” he lamented in a video as water swept down his street. Soon the tide crashed into the house he shared with his partner, Mary, and swept away the bar he had built in his garage.

Last message from Pacyna: “WE ARE TERRIFIED.”

His family announcement his death the next day.

“Everyone loved it,” said Scott Safford, co-owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn, a lemon-yellow hotel that once stood near Pacyna’s home. Now it no longer exists.

For rescue teams, the search for victims is hampered by a lack of information about who stayed and where the storm surge might have carried them.

The Red Coconut RV Park, once a seaside oasis, has been crushed to pieces of roof, walls and knick-knacks. Dozens of members of Virginia Task Force 2, one of the urban search and rescue teams deployed to Florida, dug through the debris on Tuesday as three cadaver dogs detected a possible human scent. They only found household items, including a wandering fridge full of beer.

“It’s just total destruction,” said Sullivan, the team’s leader.

Not much was left of the vacation home that Nishelle Harris-Miles’ friends and family had booked for her birthday.

The Dayton, Ohio women had heard that Ian was heading to Tampa Bay and believed the airline or rental owner would cancel them if the storm posed a real threat to Fort Myers Beach.

They had arrived the Tuesday before Ian knocked and were trying to make the most of it: dancing inside, taking silly pictures, singing “Happy Birthday”.

“We were smashed against the ceiling,” Maston said of the aftermath. “We were struggling against the ceiling and there was water everywhere. Next thing you know, the roof collapsed and we walked away with it.

They were stuck in the rubble for 14 hours, she estimated. Eventually someone heard their screams, built a makeshift plank, and pulled them out. A rescuer who descended from a helicopter confirmed what Maston already knew: Nene was dead.

“We didn’t want to leave her behind,” she said.

Nene was the mother of two sons and two daughters. A home health aide listens to her patients. A tourist who had saved up for this trip.

“We never could have imagined,” Maston said. “I saw bodies hanging from the windows. I had never seen stuff like that, only on TV.

“We didn’t know,” she said. “We just didn’t know.”

Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report. Paquette reported from Washington.

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