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

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. – The water was rising quickly, so the women ran upstairs to the vacation home they had rented for Nishelle Harris-Miles’ 40th birthday and huddled on a bed.

But Hurricane Ian’s storm surge surged through the floor, lifting the mattress higher and higher until the four were smashed against the ceiling. Then the roof collapsed and put a nail in the neck of the woman they affectionately called Nene.

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

As stories of deaths emerged from the devastation in southwest Florida, President Biden, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and local authorities have clashed over Ian’s victims. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told “Good Morning America” ​​that the death toll could range into the hundreds. Biden warned that Ian could be the “deadliest hurricane in Florida history.” The governor has played down the death toll in daily briefings, saying the tropical cyclone’s toll will not come close to the 1928 hurricane that killed a record 2,500.

Still, Ian is already shaping up to be the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935. State officials have documented 72 deaths so far — slightly below Hurricane Irma’s tally in 2017, according to the National Hurricane Center. County sheriffs have reported dozens more, pushing the total to at least 103. That makes Ian more fatal than Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Ian’s storm surge has 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, the latest data show, underscoring what experts call an often-overlooked reality: Water usually kills more people than wind.

Storm surge as high as 18 feet blew through homes, trapping some people inside while others swept 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 need to understand: The leading cause of death will be drowning,” said W. Craig Fugate, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “Storm surge doesn’t sound deadly in itself unless you understand it.”

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

“We don’t have anything,” Virginia Task Force 2 leader Brian Sullivan said Tuesday as his team searched the Red Coconut RV Park in Fort Myers Beach, ground zero of the storm. “The sheriff’s office was trying to work on compiling a list of missing persons. We have not received any information about that area.”

Counting the dead is an inexact science — there’s no sure tally from Hurricane Katrina, for example — and over the years officials have debated what qualifies as a storm death. Hurricane Maria’s toll was initially in the dozens, with officials only including drownings and blunt force trauma. But an analysis of excess deaths later pushed the total into the thousands. Many elderly people died in Puerto Rico as the island’s blackout continued for months and medical care was hard to come by.

DeSantis first indicated that indirect deaths may not be counted.

“For example, in Charlotte County they recorded a 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 tasked with cataloging the deaths, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, adheres to a broader definition.

“We include motor vehicle accidents if someone is trying to evacuate and they are flying,” spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said. “If someone had a heart attack when medical services were down. … If there was any suspicion that it was related to a hurricane, that’s a storm death.”

Water — storm surge, rainfall, inland flooding and surf — directly causes 90 percent of tropical cyclone deaths in the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center. Top indirect killers: car wrecks, carbon monoxide poisoning, electric shock and heat. And the deadly danger continues 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 off roofs.”

Many Americans underestimate the power of hurricane currents, disaster experts say. They tend to imagine strong gusts of wind and falling trees – perhaps because the country’s best-known categorization scale measures wind. Some at risk choose to lie low at home. Critics have slammed Lee County authorities for not ordering Fort Myers Beach residents to evacuate sooner.

“There’s a saying in the industry that you run from 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 communicating the risk in storm surge areas.”

Fort Myers Beach resident Mitch Pacyna, 74, had weathered 27 years of tropical storms. His social life was so packed that Pacyna’s friends jokingly referred to him as “the mayor”.

On Facebook, he documented the storm’s approach, noting that the forecast had suggested Ian would swing toward Tampa. When county officials ordered his barrier island to be emptied before the hurricane hit, Pacyna chose to stay behind.

“Oh my God … wrong decision,” he lamented in a video as water washed over his street. Soon enough, the tide crashed into the home he shared with his partner, Mary, and wiped away the bar he had built in his garage.

Pacyna’s last post: “WE ARE CUT.”

His family announced his death the next day.

“Everybody loved him,” said Scott Safford, co-owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn, a lemon-yellow hotel that once stood near Pacyna’s home. Now it doesn’t exist.

For rescuers, the search for victims is hampered by a lack of information about who remained and where the storm surge might have taken them.

Red Coconut RV Park, once a beachfront oasis, was crushed to shreds by roof, walls and trinkets. Dozens of members of Virginia Task Force 2, one of the urban search and rescue teams deployed to Florida, were digging through the debris Tuesday when three cadaver dogs detected a possible human scent. They found only household items, including a faulty fridge full of beer.

“It’s just total devastation,” said Sullivan, the team’s manager.

There was little left of the holiday home Nishelle Harris-Miles’ friends and family had booked for her birthday.

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

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

“We got smashed to the ceiling,” Maston said of what happened next. “We were fighting the ceiling and there was water everywhere. Next thing you know, the roof came down and we went with it.”

They were stranded in the debris for 14 hours, she estimated. Eventually someone heard their cries, built a makeshift plank and pulled them out. A rescuer descending 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 aide who cared about her patients. A tourist who had saved up for that trip.

“We could never have imagined,” Maston said. “I saw the bodies hanging out of the windows. I had never seen anything like it – 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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