By Nouran Salahieh, CNN
It’s been more than a week since Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida, but its effects are still being felt across the state as residents contend with closed schools, power outages, tainted water, destroyed homes and lost loved ones.
Many survivors are still in the dark or relying on generators. Statewide, more than 319,000 customers had no power as of late Thursday morning, according to PowerOutage.us, many of them in hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties.
Florida Power & Light Company Chairman and CEO Eric Silagy said in Fort Myers Thursday more than two million customers’ power has been restored, with less than 100,000 without power in its service area.
“We will continue to work around the clock until those last remaining customers who are able to receive power are restored,” Silagy said.
Residents in more than 22 Florida counties also don’t have clean running water. Boil Water Notices have been issued for 120 areas after damage from Hurricane Ian, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Matlacha resident Cindy Walton, who returned home after evacuating to Miami, said she’d rather have water than electricity.
“If you had a choice between water and electric — give me water. I don’t need electricity; I have a candle. I don’t need to be out at night when it’s dark,” Walton said.
She said the Army Corps has been distributing potable water, but it’s a “precious commodity.”
The damage is also keeping many schools closed across hard-hit areas, and those planning to open do not know how many children will show up to class.
Public schools in Collier County are set to open Thursday with the help of more than 800 substitute teachers, since 22% of the district’s teachers live in hard hit Lee County, according to Collier County Public Schools spokesperson Chad Oliver.
But it’s unlikely all the district’s roughly 50,000 students will return.
Several families showed up to a school donation drive Wednesday to say goodbye to teachers. They say their homes are destroyed, and they must move, according to Oliver.
Meanwhile, four school districts in the hardest hit areas remain closed until “further notice,” according to the Florida Department of Education. They include schools in Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and Lee counties. Sarasota County will partially reopen schools Monday.
Officials with Lee County Schools plan to make an announcement regarding the district operation plans by Friday.
Earlier this week, Lee County said a preliminary damage assessment found 54% of their schools were in need of repair and some may be beyond repair.
“We will open when we can, and we will do it safely,” superintendent Christopher Bernier said.
Meanwhile, the Charlotte County School District hopes to have students back in school by October 24.
Speaking on CNN Thursday morning, superintendent Stephen Dionisio said every single one of their school sites received damage, and many buildings suffered roof damage.
“The kids have already dealt with so much, through the last few days, that the last thing you want them to do is to have to learn a whole new school because you got to send them somewhere else,” he said.
As families deal with storm-damaged homes and infrastructure, many families across the state are also grieving loved ones.
At least 125 people died because of the storm, officials said — 120 of them in Florida and five in North Carolina.
At least 40 storm victims had drowning listed as a possible or known circumstance in their deaths, according to data on 72 people provided by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission Tuesday night.
The death toll has been increasing as rescue crews comb through the rubble searching for signs of life. There have been 2,500 rescues made as of Wednesday morning, according to the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
As those efforts continue, it’s unclear how many people are still unaccounted for.
Sanibel Island residents return to ‘heart-wrenching’ destruction, unlivable homes
When Hurricane Ian hit, it decimated some barrier islands on the state’s Gulf Coast, cutting them off from the mainland and turning popular tourist destinations into sites of devastation.
On Wednesday, residents were allowed to return to Sanibel Island, where every single home has been damaged in one way or another, Vice Mayor Richard Johnson told CNN.
Numerous boats carrying residents pulled up to shore and everyone was forced to jump out and walk up onto the beach, unable to use the damaged docking areas.
Vicki Paskaly and Julie Emig returned to discover the lower level of the home they bought on Sanibel Island two years ago was “unlivable.”
“This was our dream home, and now it’s gone. We thought we’d have a quiet life here, then Hurricane Ian took it,” Paskaly said.
Anddy Garcia, the owner of a property management company, had to tell several clients what they had been dreading to hear — their homes were beyond saving.
“It’s totally devastating to hear them on the other end of the phone, just gasping for air, and you’re telling them their home was destroyed,” Garcia said. “It’s totally heart-wrenching for me.”
Garcia, who has worked in the area for 26 years, said he doesn’t know how the massive rehabilitation effort will affect Sanibel’s residents and businesses.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen for tomorrow, how long this is going to take to rebuild,” Garcia said. “It’s just totally devastating.”
Hurricane Ian hit the area just before its tourist season and the city will feel an economic impact, Johnson said.
“We’re absolutely concerned about rebuilding. This could happen again, and it will happen again,” Johnson said. “However, we will be prepared. We will rebuild, and we will rebuild stronger and better than we were before.”
DeSantis also visited the island Wednesday, describing the carnage and saying there will be a “massive amount of debris removal.”
“You can go over it in a helicopter, and you see damage, but it does not do it justice until you are actually on the ground, and you see concrete utility poles sawed off right in half, massive power lines everywhere, massive amounts of debris,” DeSantis said.
In addition to the devastation on the island itself, Ian ripped away several parts of the causeway which was Sanibel’s only access to Florida’s mainland, stranding dozens of people and hindering recovery efforts.
Power is still out on the island because Lee County Electric Cooperative has not been able to get any equipment there, according to Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza. The company acquired a barge to begin transporting materials to the island Thursday, he said.
It could take a month or longer just to restore power to some areas of Sanibel and neighboring Pine Island, Lee County Electric Cooperative spokesperson Karen Ryan told CNN.
On Pine Island, crews Wednesday completed a temporary fix for part of a bridge washed away in the storm, state transportation officials said.
“Our house got destroyed … every other house on my block is destroyed,” boat captain Christopher Petrow told CNN while riding to Pine Island Wednesday, delivering supplies to people who need them most.
“It’s crazy, absolute carnage,” he added.
Hospitals strained in aftermath of the storm
Ian’s damage has also been straining hospitals in southwest Florida.
Sarasota Memorial Health Care System set up a 30-bed tent facility outside its hospital in Venice, which is in Sarasota County just north of hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties, to help with an influx of patients.
A second disaster medical assistance team opened in Charlotte County “to help reduce the strain in local ERs while hospitals in that region gradually reopen,” a news release from Sarasota Memorial Health Care System said.
“Most hospitals south of Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast were evacuated and remained closed for several days due to damage from the storm. Sarasota Memorial’s Sarasota and Venice campuses have seen record numbers of patients streaming into their emergency care centers, and have worked closely with emergency management officials and hospitals around the state to manage the influx,” hospital officials said.
Florida hospitals were experiencing “significant pressure” on capacity after Hurricane Ian hit, Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, told CNN Monday.
The hurricane damaged emergency departments and displaced many hospital workers. And complicating matters more, some facilities lost reliable access to water.
“We were ready, we had our generators all ready. We had plenty of fuel. What we couldn’t anticipate and didn’t anticipate was the loss of water from our utility companies,” said Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health.
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CNN’s Randi Kaye, Laura Dolan, Jerry Simonson, Amy Simonson, Stephanie Gallman and Amanda Musa contributed to this report.