‘Forget about our jobs, we’re human’: Grueling Ian search takes toll on USAR crews

In Fort Myers Beach, Task Force 2 members search for survivors street by street


David Goodhue
Miami Herald

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — It’s grueling work being a member of Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2, made up mostly of city of Miami firefighters.

In Fort Myers Beach after Hurricane Ian, just as in countless other disasters, they go about their work methodically. Street by street, house to house, picking through the rubble, and knocking on doors looking for survivors.

Some have seen more than others with their time not only with federally overseen Task Force 2 but also in their daily lives as firefighters and medics.

One member, who declined to be named, stood by a wrecked beachfront mansion while his colleagues sifted through the debris and dug through the floor looking for a possible gas leak. The house looked like it was hit by a bomb.

Judging by the weather Monday, it was hard to believe nature was responsible for all the destruction that is now Fort Myers Beach. The beach was wide. Piping plovers ran along the sand. The skies were sunny, and the temperature was in the low 80s with a little bit of humidity. It was a perfect beach day.

“We end up in this paradise, but next to us is an apocalypse,” the firefighter said. “Forget about our jobs, we’re human,” he said.

Task Force 2 arrived on Fort Myers Beach before dawn Thursday.

“There were still high winds, rains. It was dark, there was no power, roads were blocked, and we started searching,” said Gerry Rodriguez, search team manager with Task Force 2. “We began to look for survivors at that point. We began doing what we call a hasty search, just finding anybody that we can who’s alive.”

There were plenty of people on the island who did not heed the call to evacuate. When rescuers arrived, these residents and tourists emerged and began asking for help, Rodriguez said.

“They were disoriented. We just started evacuating, putting everyone in one spot, and then escorting them off the island,” he said.

And, then there were the dead. There was no pattern to how the bodies were found in those initial hours.

“Inside their homes. Outside their homes. On the streets,” Rodriguez said. “It was very different.”

The Gulfview Colony mobile home is just off the beach on Estero Boulevard, but it was completely leveled. Rescuers have already found several people dead there, and expect to find more before their tour in Fort Myers Beach is over.

In a neighborhood a few blocks away, a Task Force 2 dog handler, Dr. Jennifer Brown, a veterinarian in her daily life, had her two labs, Phame and Phierce, work a pile of wooden debris that was once a house. The dogs don’t sift through a scene together; rather one goes in, comes out, gets loaded into its kennel, then the other one goes in.

Brown said this is because just a shift in the wind can throw off their senses, making them miss something. The other one is there to pick up on anything the first one missed, Brown said.

“We use one dog to back up the other,” she said.

On Monday, Phame and Phierce found neither survivors nor dead in the wrecked homes they searched.

On the other side of the bridge to Fort Myers Beach is the small community of San Carlos. It too has an Old Florida beach atmosphere to it that was possibly forever changed by Ian’s wreckage.

Huge commercial fishing vessels are piled up upon each other in the marina. Buildings are shells of what they were before the storm hit. Boats are on the sides of the roads, in trees and lining San Carlos Boulevard, the main road that leads to the bridge to Fort Myers.

A gas station there also served as a sort of temporary refugee camp for residents who kept trickling over the bridge, many on Army National Guard Trucks, pickup trucks and all-terrain National Forest Service vehicles.

Brandy Batz, 45, and her 66-year-old mother, Cathy Batz, sat on lawn chairs in the gas station’s parking lot. Two buses were parked out front, but they were waiting for a ride from friends, and are then heading to Brandy’s home in Los Angeles.

She and her boyfriend had come out to Fort Myers Beach to stay with Cathy while she received treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They didn’t leave Cathy’s home. Unlike some of her less fortunate neighbors, the living area of her home is above a garage, and the surge only destroyed the garage.

That said, it was the most frightening experience they’ve experienced,” Brandy Batz said.

“Like the apocalypse. Like that game ‘Fallout.’ Horrifying,” she said.

Shari Bowman rode out the storm on the fourth floor of the Lani Kai Island Resort beachfront hotel on Fort Myers Beach’s main drag of Estero Boulevard, where she is a bar back.

“The building was shaking, windows were bowing, water coming in hard and fast. It was brutal,” Bowman, said.

The 43-year-old building survived, and employees who stayed there were able to survive off food that was thawing out in the powerless freezer, but Bowman, 55, said she’ll never stay in town for another hurricane again.

“If anyone ever wants to ride a hurricane out, do not, it’s dangerous,” she said.

On Monday Bowman didn’t know what she was going to find when she returned to her home on Iona, a small community between Fort Myers Beach and Fort Myers, which also received a lot of damage from Ian.

“I’ll just see what I can salvage and go from there,” she said.

Sharon Slater is a clinical psychologist and a member of the United Hatzalah Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit that has come to the United States before to help victims of disasters, including last year’s Surfside tragedy.

Most recently, the 57-year-old was in Ukraine during the first week of the Russian invasion, helping refugees find shelter.

Whether it’s terror attacks in Israel, earthquakes in Haiti, building collapses in South Florida or powerful hurricanes, there are aspects of trauma that thread themselves through all tragedies, and Slater said she expects to find them here in Fort Myers Beach.

In Surfside, as well as in Ukraine, Slater said there were “a whole bunch of families who came together, living out of suitcases displaced, didn’t know what tomorrow would bring and thrown together with a bunch of strangers who became family to them.”

“I’m going to find much of the same here. People bond in situations like this when there’s great uncertainty and there’s a great sense of displacement. People are out of routine, they’re anxious. They’re anxious about their belongings, they’re anxious about their pets, their homes, their future — financial and otherwise. We’re looking at more of the same,” she said.

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©2022 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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