ARCADIA, Florida — Tia Lias thought she was doing a nice thing, driving her kids to get Chinese food the day after Hurricane Ian tore through their rural town 50 miles inland from the coast.
She thought they’d appreciate a hot meal, a choice of foods. After all, they’d survived the catastrophic storm largely unscathed. Even their chickens were OK, although their coop flew away.
But when the three crossed the low-lying bridge over the Peace River in their Kia Sorrento, they found the restaurant was without power, serving only a handful of dishes. They ordered crab wontons and pork spare ribs and turned toward their home, about 50 miles from Fort Myers.
They didn’t make it.
“We were only in town for 15 minutes. It came up that fast,” Lias told USA TODAY.
“It” were the floodwaters gushing down the Peace River. Normally winding in lazy loops along the west side of town, the river overflowed its banks Thursday, flooding as many as 2,000 homes and at least 100 RVs in which people were living, authorities said.
The flooding driven by 20 inches of rain dropped by Ian blocked multiple roads in DeSoto County, turning some neighborhoods into islands. In addition to flooding homes, the waters engulfed a gas station and the Peace River Campground, where about 150 people lived year-round, officials said.
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The area typically gets about 51 inches of annual rainfall, meaning Ian dropped half a year’s worth of precipitation in mere hours. Officials said despite the damage, they received no reports of serious injury or deaths.
On Sunday, lingering and widespread power outages and poor cell service hampered evacuation efforts via airboats with the help of the Florida National Guard. Authorities were distributing water and ready-made meals to stranded people who didn’t want to leave.
Lias, on the other hand, sat on the town side of the flooding and struggled with what to do. Her mom was stuck at their house with water, food and gas supplies dwindling. She wanted Lias and her kids to come home, to ride things out together.
But Lias figured sticking closer to what services are still working made more sense. As of Sunday, the three of them had already slept three nights in their SUV. Her daughter Khloe celebrated her 9th birthday in the back seat, without presents – they’re waiting for her at home.
“Nothing is normal. It makes you feel like your life is in shambles, but our whole county too,” said Lias, sitting on the grass by the river, yellow caution tape fluttering above her head. “If it wasn’t for me having some spare clothes in the car, we’d have nothing.”
Local officials, the Florida National Guard and a growing army of volunteers are ferrying supplies to the isolated areas with small boats and swamp-tour airboats, and more volunteers handed out hot meals, baby supplies and other necessities to people who ordinarily live a five-minute drive from the store. Boats buzzed back and forth between the newly dubbed mainland and the island area to the west.
DeSoto County has about 35,000 full-time residents, although the population swells in the winter with snowbirds escaping the northern U.S., and at harvest time with migrant workers picking oranges, watermelons and squash.
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“It’s a blessing that people can help in this time because these times are tough,” said Lizbeth Manriques, 20, as she helped her younger brother juggle several pieces of bread and a Styrofoam container of rice and beans.
Authorities said they are prepared to evacuate anyone who wanted to leave, but acknowledged the speed at which the floodwaters rose caught them off-guard.
“We know about hurricanes but flooding is a new thing for us,” said DeSoto County Commissioner J.C. Deriso. “The storm, our community was pretty well prepared for. But the flood was pretty unexpected. Rivers rise and fall every year. But what we saw was once in a lifetime. At least we hope so.”
Deriso said the relatively lesser wind damage from Ian may have lulled some people into a false sense a security. That’s what happened to Melanie George and their family, who boated to dry land Sunday afternoon to pick up a generator and food.
“The storm went by and you could still travel,” said George, 55, clutching plastic bags of food and drinks. “And then all the water came.”
Signaling how bad the damage is, Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Arcadia on Sunday afternoon after touring damage in coastal areas. Like Deriso, the governor said rescuers will continue working as long as needed – but that it’s up to Mother Nature to drop the water levels before a true recovery can begin.
“This is such a big storm, brought so much water that you’re having basically what’s been a 500-year flood event here in DeSoto County and in some of the neighboring counties,” DeSantis told reporters. “At the end of the day, the waters need to recede more. It’s making it difficult for folks. We understand that.”
Sitting on the curb near the river, Lias said she was glad DeSantis took the time to visit her hometown.
Her parents have lived in DeSoto County for about 20 years, and she bought property about 14 years ago, leaving behind the noise of Fort Myers for the peace of the country, where she could raise her kids. She worried aloud about how much school they were missing after getting back on track after COVID-19 and fretted about having enough money to buy more food and gas.
But most of all, she worried about what to do next: Try to get back home to stay with her mom? Boat home and force her mom to leave? Or just stay on the shore and sleep again in the car.
As she talked, Khloe interrupted to remind everyone about her birthday and voted to go home so she could open her presents.
“We can’t control Mother Nature,” Lias said. “As much as you want things to be the same again, you know they’ll never be the same.”