By Christina Zdanowicz, David Williams and Caroll Alvarado, CNN
Mitch Pacyna loved entertaining so much that he earned the nickname “The Mayor of Fort Myers Beach,” because of his welcoming nature, his daughter said.
Pacyna, 74, died in Fort Myers Beach while he and his wife were trying to get to higher ground during Hurricane Ian, his daughter Michelle Schuline told CNN. Now his wife Mary Wojciechowski and family are coping with the loss of their beloved husband, father and grandfather.
“Whenever somebody [new] would come to town … he would meet them and welcome them and sit down, have a drink and just welcome to the community,” Schuline said. “He was always the life of the party. He enjoyed his friends and spending time with them and celebrating their successes.”
The real magnitude of Hurricane Ian’s death toll is still unknown.
The current number of deaths is at least 125 in the Southeast, with most of them in Florida, according to a CNN tally. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno reduced the hurricane-related death toll in his county Friday, as “the medical examiner’s office has reclassified several deaths” because they were not storm-related, he said.
Meanwhile, residents across parts of Florida lost their homes and their livelihoods and others in hard-hit areas are still dealing with power outages and no clean running water.
These are the stories of some of the victims of the hurricane.
Pacyna and his wife lived in Florida for 27 years and thought Hurricane Ian would be just another hurricane, his daughter said.
“I understand they were trying to leave the house as it was collapsing and he didn’t make it out of there,” Schuline said. The couple was trying to get to shelter, she said.
Wojciechowski and the couple’s dog Lulu survived and are safe, she said. She spoke with Wojciechowski on Sunday.
“[She’s] obviously in shock, devastated. They were together for 30 years, so losing somebody like that and being there when it happened is really hard on her,” Schuline said. “She’s having … a hard time with understanding what’s all going on and coming to grips with things.”
Schuline said she’d been following her dad’s updates on Facebook during the storm and grew concerned when he stopped posting.
His final post, made at 1:28 p.m. on September 28, just two hours before landfall, read, “OK,,WE’RE TERRIFIED !!”
Earlier, he’d posted a video of his elaborate home bar floating away.
“This ain’t letting up yet, if it gets a little higher, we may have to go on the roof,” he said in the video.
Pacyna hailed from the Chicago area and was a diehard fan of the Cubs, Blackhawks and Bears. He visited his home state in May to celebrate his granddaughters’ graduations from high school and college, Schuline said.
Schuline, 51, set up a GoFundMe campaign to help Wojciechowski, who also lost her home in the storm.
Craig Markgraff Jr.
Craig Markgraff Jr. was the “greatest brother anyone could ask for,” said his sister, April Rudolph.
Markgraff, 35, had a way of picking up anyone who was feeling down, Rudolph said.
“He was a fierce friend,” she said. “He was very protective and loving of all his friends and family.”
The Hardee County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Markgraff, who lived in Zolfo Springs, Florida, died after Hurricane Ian flooded parts of the state last week.
Markgraff was reported missing on September 29 and was last seen the night before, according to a news release on the sheriff’s office Facebook page.
A water search and rescue team found his body Tuesday and identified him by comparing “tattoo descriptions” from the family and social media photos, the release said.
Markgraff loved the outdoors, said his sister. He loved working on his car, camping and hunting.
Part of Markgraff’s legacy in the area came from his construction and building work.
“He built a lot of homes and buildings on Sanibel Island and in the Fort Myers area, so I’m sure a lot of his hard work was probably destroyed by this hurricane,” Rudolph said.
Mother of four, Nishelle Harris-Miles, traveled to Fort Myers, Florida, to celebrate her 40th birthday — now her family is preparing to lay her to rest after she was identified as one of the victims of Hurricane Ian, her mother said.
Harris-Miles from Dayton, Ohio, traveled with a group of friends and family to celebrate her and a friend’s birthdays, her mother Michele Harris told CNN. She was staying at a vacation rental when Hurricane Ian hit Florida, according to her mother.
“A lot of us at home told her not to go because a hurricane was coming,” Harris said. “They were under the assumption they were safe.”
The group of friends quickly realized it was not safe to be in Fort Myers, but could not find anyone willing to pick them up from where they were staying, Harris-Miles’ mother said.
Harris said water entered the vacation rental and pushed them toward the ceiling.
“They were on top of a mattress and two of the girls couldn’t swim, so they tied themselves together with a sheet to try to keep each other safe,” she said. “They started kicking and hollering, begging for help. The ceiling then collapsed on them.”
According to Harris, her daughter noticed a nail had punctured her body while they were trapped in the home.
A neighbor finally heard the screams coming from inside the property and rescued the group, taking them to a makeshift shelter.
“Her sister held her hand until Nishelle stopped moving,” Harris said. “They stayed in a makeshift shelter with Nishelle’s body for 16 hours until the shelter started to crack …” The neighbor told them to leave for safety reasons, so they left her body there, Harris said.
Harris-Miles leaves behind two daughters and two sons, her mother said. A family friend created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her funeral expenses.
Harris-Miles enjoyed dancing and spending time with her family, Harris said.
“She was always the life of the party,” Harris said. “She was a caregiver and a loving person. She enjoyed life. My daughter was loved by many people.”
After Stacy Verdream’s father died when she was just two weeks old, her uncle, Mike Verdream, moved in and helped her mom raise her and her brother, she said.
On Monday, the sheriff’s office informed her brother that Verdream had died in Matlacha, Florida. Now, Stacy Verdream and her family are coping with the sudden loss of her uncle, who died after trying to ride out Hurricane Ian, she said.
“He was always there for me growing up, teaching me how to drive and taking me to the fair,” she said. “The cool uncle that would buy me like a dirt bike and bought the Jet Ski for us to, like, go out on the lake. He just loved us to death.”
Mike Verdream, 66, planned to go to his boss’ two-story home if the storm got too bad, his niece told CNN.
Stacy Verdream said she spoke with her uncle briefly on Wednesday. Her cousin spoke with him later that day and he said the water was four feet deep before telling her he had to go.
“It was a very brief call because he said he was very scared and she’d never heard him like that, because he wasn’t that type of person,” Verdream said. “He’s always put on a brave face.”
But her cousin said, “he sounded absolutely terrified,” she recounted.
The family kept calling and trying to reach him, but the phone went straight to voice mail, Verdream said. They also posted his picture and information on Facebook in hopes that people had seen him.
A detective told Verdream on Tuesday that he was found in a canal on Friday, September 30. The condition of his body was consistent with other victims that had been recovered, she was told.
Authorities used medical records to identify her uncle, Verdream said.
The family was told Friday that her uncle had survived the storm and was helping people. They were told he was unable to call because his phone had gotten wet.
As more time passed, they grew concerned that he hadn’t borrowed a phone or found a way to reach them.
Verdream said her uncle was “very giving,” so it made sense that he was helping others.
“He would give you the shirt off his back, the last dime he had if someone was in need,” Verdream said. “Always worried about helping other people and not himself.”
Former airline pilot Ian Conway immigrated to the United States from Australia in the 1980s and had lived in Florida ever since, said his daughter Margot Conway.
“He was absolutely brilliant. His whole world was flying,” his daughter said. “He has traveled the world. It was his whole world until he got too sick to fly.”
Conway, 61, of Estero, Florida, was found dead outside his mobile home in Mariner’s Cove after Hurricane Ian swept through, his daughter told CNN.
“He was found wrapped up on the bench outside his home on the shuffleboard court,” Conway said. “He told me would go to a shelter if a storm ever came. I’m not sure why he didn’t go.”
Conway’s neighbor called Margot Conway on Thursday, September 29, to let her know her father had passed away during the storm, she said. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office later told her that her father had drowned.
On Wednesday, she got to his home, which was under 7 feet of water, and everything was destroyed, she said.
“The community around him has been the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” Conway said. “These strangers I’ve never even spoken to hugged me and told me stories about him.”
Conway is survived by his two daughters.
Cape Coral, Florida, resident Elizabeth McGuire, 49, was found dead in her home on Friday after Hurricane Ian tore through the area, her son, Andrew Chedester, told CNN. Chedester said police told him that his mother died in her bed holding her cell phone and that it looked like she died instantly.
Her family had last spoken to McGuire on Wednesday and had trouble reaching her since then, Chedester said. When no one heard from her, neighbors called for a wellness check.
Chedester said he was at home on Friday when a Cape Coral Police Department detective knocked on his door and told him of his mother’s death. He said he had already received a call from his mother’s ex-boyfriend just before that.
“I can’t believe somebody I just saw the other day was completely gone,” the 24-year-old said of his mom.
He talked about how the two would always joke around. “‘Keep your head up little b*tch, you’ll be alright,'” Chedester said his mom would tell him when times were tough.
“She was a friend when you needed it the most,” Chedester said.
CNN spoke to her mother, Susan McGuire, who learned of her daughter’s death through her grandson, Chedester. She said her daughter had been suffering from blood clots from deep vein thrombosis and was on disability.
Her daughter, who went by “Liz,” leaves behind two sons, her mother said.
Susan McGuire had limited cell phone service during and after the storm, as she was stranded in Bokeelia, Florida, on Pine Island. She worried the worst about her daughter, especially with her medical condition, she said.
“One hundred blizzards will not cost you what one hurricane will cost you,” said Susan McGuire, who had moved to the area from Maryland years ago. “My husband’s business is wiped out, my daughter is dead. The destruction is massive. I never had a blizzard take anything away from me.”
Jayron Purvis, 22, died in Robersonville, North Carolina, as the remnants of Hurricane Ian passed through the area on Friday.
“He was driving his truck on wet roads during the storm when it left the roadway and into a swamp, where he drowned,” Keith Acree, spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, told CNN in a statement.
Purvis is one of five storm-related deaths in the state.
Three people died in separate vehicle-related incidents on Friday, according to a release from Gov. Roy Cooper’s Office. Another person died from carbon monoxide poisoning after running a generator in a closed garage. No information was given about the other death.
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CNN’s Amanda Watts and Amanda Jackson contributed to this report.