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Ohioans with ties to Florida react to damage from Hurricane Ian

sanibel causeway washout - satellite photo
A satellite photo of the Sanibel Causeway shows the section washed out by Hurricane Ian

Floridians are determining the extent of damage from Hurricane Ian following landfall Wednesday.

Portage County resident Will Stolicny was in Orlando for some work training and witnessed the storm firsthand.

“It was sideways rain, blowing wind, I helped move a limb out of the road so that people could get back to the hotel," Stolicny said, "and I was soaked in just the five or 10 minutes I was outside.”

Stolicny said a lot of people from Florida’s west coast evacuated to the hotel where he’s staying. He said hotel staff has worked hard to accommodate families fleeing the storm’s destruction.

"They're just trying be really accommodating to every guest," Stolicny said. "That's the one thing that I witnessed was the hotel staff went into their hurricane protocol, and once that happens the staff that's here stays on property. And they just rotate out, so it's the same staff until it's safe for things to go back to normal."

Cleveland resident Jessica Bittner’s family lives on Sanibel Island, and she got married at the lighthouse in 2013. Her family was originally planning on sheltering in nearby Ft Myers.

"But once they found out that the fire department was leaving the island, which was very unusual, they had a feeling it was going to be worse than anticipated, so they drove to the east side of the state," Bittner said.

U.S. Coast Guard footage showed Bittner’s parent’s house.

“And it’s intact. The roof is there. It’s new roof. They just had it replaced. Their landlord replaced it last year," Bittner said. "You can see the cars in the driveway. You can see trees.”

Bittner said the community sustained a lot of flooding, so they are anticipating water damage to the property. But she feels lucky as other houses in the area were destroyed completely.

"The city is assessing the island, trying to make sure it's safe for really anyone to be on it at this point. As you can imagine there's a lot of power lines down mixed in with the vegetation," Bittner said. "And then come up with a plan for letting residents in once it's safe to do so, for those reasons and once electricity and water and cell phone service is restored."

Bittner said her stepfather has lived in Sanibel most of his life and stayed on the island during Hurricane Charley in 2004. The Sanibel Causeway, which connects the island to mainland, withstood Charley 18 years ago but was destroyed this week during Ian.

"That bridge was built to withstand category five winds, and it probably did withstand the winds," Bittner said. "But climate change has made a storm that was three times the size of the last hurricane to hit it directly, and it can't withstand 15 or 20 foot waves where the water's four feet deep."

Bittner wants people to understand that Florida isn't just occupied by vacationers and the upper class. She said Sanibel is primarily run by working class people who haven't lived anywhere else and are disproportionately being impacted by the climate crisis.

"Like this isn't normal. These aren't normal hurricanes. This is coming, because the gulf was 87 degrees, because the climate is warming," Bittner said. "And no one seems to care. It's unfortunately just going to happen more and more, but that doesn't mean the people that live there don't get to live their life."

The National Hurricane Center expects Ian to next make landfall today in South Carolina.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media. A Northeast Ohio native and lifelong listener of public radio, Abigail started in public radio as a news intern at WKSU. She graduated in 2022 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Kent State University.