Boats in the streets, cars in the sea: Fort Myers Beach pummeled by Ian

An aerial picture taken on September 30, 2022 shows the only access to the Matlacha neighborhood destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida. - Forecasters expect Hurricane Ian to cause life-threatening storm surges in the Carolinas on Friday after unleashing devastation in Florida, where it left a yet unknown number of dead in its wake. After weakening across Florida, Ian regained its Category 1 status in the Atlantic Ocean and was headed toward the Carolinas, the US National Hurricane Center said Friday | Photo: AFP

Fort Myers Beach, United States: As Pete Belinda and his wife slowly walked down a road outside Fort Myers Beach on the southwestern coast of Florida, they each dragged a large suitcase behind them.

"This is all we have left," Belinda said, shaken and visibly tired.

The town, a quiet place on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, became the epicenter of destruction as Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida on Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 storm.

The couple lived on the lower floor of their daughter's house, where they moved six months ago, but the storm has left them without a home.

"It's just flipped upside down, soaking wet, full of mud," Belinda said.

"We don't really know what we will do now. We're reaching out to some friends and family for somewhere to live for a while because we don't have anywhere to go."

Fort Myers Beach is practically deserted now, traversed solely by emergency services vehicles and the handful of people who returned to their homes take stock of what they lost.

The part of town hit hardest by Ian, the area closest to the sea on Estero Island, was reduced to a field of ruins.

Police have restricted access for those who do not live in the neighborhood, but photos taken from a helicopter flight showed the magnitude of the damage.

Strong winds razed the wooden houses in the area -- in some spots there wasn't even rubble, just empty plots where homes once stood.

Rich Gibboni is one of those who lost his home.

"The second floor caved in from the wind, and the first floor was flooded all the way up to the second floor," he said, sounding resigned.

The 50-year-old had come to another neighborhood in Fort Myers Beach to look for provisions before heading back to Estero Island, where he was taking shelter in a hotel with about 20 other people.

Nearby, 72-year-old holidaymaker Chris Bills pulled her hat down on her head as she waited for a bus to pick up her and her husband.

Earlier in the day, an emergency services patrol had given them two hours to gather their belongings and vacate the apartment they had rented near the sea.

The couple traveled to Florida from England to enjoy warmer weather, and had not been worried about hurricane warnings.

"We didn't think that it would be so severe," Bills said.

"I was extremely scared. We've never experienced anything like this before."

In the neighborhood they were leaving behind, the force of the hurricane had left dozens of boats grounded in the streets -- some still moored to pieces of a pier -- and dragged cars out into a nearby bay where they remained floating.

But Gibboni said he hadn't given up hope after the destruction wrought by Ian.

"We got to survive. This is the only way to do it," he said.

"We have got to restart. It's gonna take a long time, so we just got to get back on our feet."

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