Southwest Florida residents from Naples to Chokoloskee went to bed Sunday to an avalanche of rain and wind, the sound of trees cracking, windows shattering, metal bending and twisting. They did not know if they would wake up to their homes still standing — or even if they would wake up at all.
The eye of Hurricane Irma made a direct hit on Marco Island, a resort paradise south of Naples, and by the time it barreled up the coast toward Tampa, it left a scar on nearly every home on nearly every block.
Irma made landfall on the island about 3:30 p.m. Sunday with wind gusts of 130 miles per hour, officials said at a news conference at City Hall Monday. The storm surge, however, was less than what was feared, and there was no loss of life, and only minor injuries, officials said.
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The bridge to the island was open by 10 a.m. Monday.
“We were the little engine that did it,” said Mike Murphy, Marco Island’s fire chief.
Most of the island’s estimated 17,000 residents evacuated to shelters, but about 3,000 to 5,000 stayed, he said. During peak season, the Gulf Coast island’s population is much larger.
As the winds hit the island, and the water rose, and trees uprooted, rescue crews were called — but by then it was too dangerous for firefighters to venture out.
“San Marco Road looked like a river,” said Police Chief Al Schettino, who was on the road about 2 a.m., driving in four feet of water.
In Fort Myers, a few gas stations opened off of I-75 Monday afternoon and were quickly swamped with customers. A woman in a baggy purple shirt sitting outside a Marathon on Colonial Boulevard shouted “no fuel” as cars lined up regardless. Stores that were open were rare, and those that were had minimal food and supplies.
One of the customers was Nikki Belmonte, 34, who said her front yard in Lehigh Acres looked like a lake. Though her yard had returned to normal later that day, she said Lehigh was flooded everywhere.
Tiffany Davis, 39, of Fort Myers, said a “cold Coke and a Rockstar energy drink” was worth the 30 minutes she had already spent waiting in line at a store.
“I went through those staying up with three small grandchildren during the hurricane,” Davis said, adding that the children were 5, 2 and a 1 year old.
Dozens of business signs were ripped from the buildings in nearby Cape Coral, trees uprooted and street lights not working Monday.
Irma’s path was visible from I-75 around Bonita Springs, where a soccer field was underwater, except for the bleachers and goal posts. Vast flooding could be seen from the highway, miles away.
On Marco Island, one of those who stayed put during the hurricane was Zack Forrest and his roommate, who rode out the storm in their apartment. He said he expected it to be worse.
“It was not a nuclear hurricane,” Forrest told CNN. “But it was a badass hurricane.”
“The people who stay, they place not only their lives in jeopardy, but also our lives in jeopardy. We want to go out and get them but we can’t,” said Murphy, the fire chief.
One family of seven was trapped in their home for hours, with the water rising, and Murphy held them on the phone during the storm, trying to keep them calm until crews could finally reach them.
“Had those seven people lost their lives, we would have carried that home with us,” he said.