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Hurricane Ian: Behind the scenes with a Fla. USAR team

More than 300 people from multiple states joined the Fort Myers Beach mission, where they found human remains more than a week after the storm’s landfall


Anthony Prado (left) Bryan Bartlett and Angel Menendez, with the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team, work together on Oct. 5 to search for people in homes damaged by Hurricane Ian.

Douglas R. Clifford/Tribune News Service

By Douglas R. Clifford, Zachary T. Sampson
Tampa Bay Times

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — The members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team followed Hurricane Ian up the coast to Fort Myers Beach, where a raging storm surge destroyed homes and killed people who did not evacuate.

They set up a command post in the shadow of a Margaritaville Resort still under construction. They unfurled maps of the city divided into grids and split up areas to target next. They slept on cots, filling tents beside the Gulf of Mexico and close to the shattered fishing pier.

Clad in navy jackets, pants and bucket hats, the searchers traded long shifts in the sun. Some of them had been working for a week and didn’t know when their stint would end.

On a recent afternoon, one team member walked around with a glass measuring cup full of Cuban coffee. He poured steaming shots into small paper cups for anyone not already out searching the dusty rubble.

The search and rescue workers drove around the island in lifted pickups with bulky tires. They came from fire departments across South Florida, and all had passed hours of special training. Many of the firefighters were a little over a year removed from working at the Surfside condo tower collapse.

For some, like heavy equipment rigging specialist Bryan Bartlett, the job is like an inheritance. Their fathers were firefighters, too.

“It’s important to be able to come out and help these people,” Bartlett said. “These people in Fort Myers Beach, they lost everything.”

More than 300 people joined the search and rescue mission on Fort Myers Beach, said Capt. Ignatius Carroll, a spokesperson for the South Florida team. Some traveled from other states.

The South Florida group was in charge, full of firefighters with years of experience working around disaster zones.

“We are finding human remains,” Carroll said almost a week after Hurricane Ian made landfall. He declined to say how many.

The official death toll from the storm reached 102 on Monday, according to state figures. That included multiple people on Fort Myers Beach. As of late last week, more than half of the victims had drowned.

The search and rescue crews were methodical. They scanned the city in phases, Carroll said:

First came the hasty search when firefighters walked around and called out to people. They noted residents still on the island and alive.

Then came a closer look through at least two more searches.

The crews embarked on property-by-property surveys. They checked behind doors, peered into cars and eventually circled back to areas that were especially hard to reach. Sometimes, they called for dogs trained to detect human remains. They ticked off locations with a phone application.

Searchers attempted to decipher where chunks of homes, ripped from their foundations, had stood before the flood pushed wreckage inland. They picked apart piles of debris by hand and with heavy machinery.

Even days after the hurricane, Carroll said, the crews could have found people alive, trapped in attics or in raised houses with no way down.

The damage on Fort Myers Beach was stunning, even to seasoned veterans.

Hazmat Specialist Peter Darley thought of the storm as a combination of Hurricane Michael (intense destruction) and Hurricane Irma (broad in its sweep).

Exactly one week after Ian’s landfall, Darley and a handful of other searchers stepped into a thick patch of brush off Mango Street on Fort Myers Beach. Their blue uniforms and white helmets disappeared into the green, sticks and dead leaves crunching under their boots.

The flood could have washed a person into the scrub, but they found nothing.

The team moved down the road, climbing over piles of broken wood and metal, peering into empty windows and under collapsed roofs. In one house, still standing, a clear water line dirtied the wall above the highest kitchen cabinet.

Someone had smelled something bad in this area, perhaps a body hidden from view.

The firefighters stepped past pieces of walls, a deck and cinderblock columns. They passed a calculator, a skim board, an unbroken glass bottle of Corona. Tree branches, a wicker chair, metal poles.

All of them had tripped or fallen at some point. They picked up trash — broom handles, a golf club — to steady themselves.

No survivors here, either. The smell was nothing to worry about.

“North side!” Darley yelled to a teammate. “Open fridge.”

It was their last stop of the day. The team hopped back into a truck and headed to the command post at the edge of town.


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