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More than a week after Hurricane Ian, Florida residents frustrated with state and federal response

By Amir Vera, Leyla Santiago, Will Brown and Nouran Salahieh, CNN

Residents in southwestern Florida have been bearing the brunt of Hurricane Ian, and frustration with the government response is beginning to set in a little more than a week since the storm slammed into the state.

And while the local, state and federal governments have called upon the National Guard, opened Disaster Recovery Centers and are surveying damage, residents told CNN they’ve had to contend with long lines for assistance, long wait times on the phone and some have felt their entire communities were overlooked completely.

Susan Tadey told CNN Thursday she’d been waiting in line at the Disaster Recovery Center in Fort Myers for about an hour and a half seeking to rent a car so she can work again. She said her car flooded and her double-wide mobile home is now missing a roof.

“I just need to get my life back, get things sorted so that I can go to work and take care of myself and just get my things back in order,” Tadey said during a tearful interview.

Mary Fernandes said she and her fiancé lost their mobile home and everything in it, so they have been staying with her fiancé’s daughter, who is leaving next week. Fernandes came to the Disaster Recovery Center in hopes of getting a motel room so they do not have to live in their car.

She told CNN she put in an application for help online a week ago, but she hasn’t gotten any response. She also said she attempted to call the center but could never get through.

“One time it said 105 minutes. One time it said two hours and 48 minutes. And then another time it said three hours — so you just can’t get through,” Fernandes said.

And then there are residents in the unincorporated community of Harlem Heights, about 10 miles south of Fort Myers and part of the metropolitan area, who feel left out of the government response.

Two residents, both of whom are Black, told CNN they’ve not seen as fast a response in their neighborhood as they’ve seen in Fort Myers Beach or Sanibel Island.

“You literally have to drive through Harlem Heights to get to Fort Myers Beach and to get to Sanibel, so we felt left out,” said Sharee Mobley while at a community event in Harlem Heights sponsored by Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church where volunteers gave out food and supplies.

Terry Mobley added: “I do feel like we’re getting help [now], but it’s outside organizations, still not my local government, no. They have not been here.”

The same day, speaking at Pelican Alley Restaurant in Nokomis, Gov. Ron DeSantis highlighted the government’s preplanning and response to the storm — specifically in Lee County, Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach.

“My view is we’ve got to have all hands on deck, we’ve got to get all of these communities moving forward. If you just let it toil, then that’s how they end up maybe never coming back. So I think there is a sense of urgency on it and we’re working across the board with all those,” DeSantis said.

The governor also praised efforts to restore power and water, saying “all but 1.86% of the state” has power restored.

“I’m happy to have had a lot of people working really hard, not just over the past week, but the week leading into this,” he said. “And to be honest, these are things you have to practice going into a hurricane season, and so we take pride in that in Florida to have strong disaster response.”

Residents face life without water, electricity and even their homes

Many survivors are still in the dark or relying on generators. Statewide, more than 170,000 customers had no power as of Thursday evening, according to PowerOutage.us, many of them in hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties.

Florida Power & Light Company Chairman and CEO Eric Silagy said in Fort Myers Thursday more than two million customers’ power has been restored, with less than 100,000 without power in its service area.

“We will continue to work around the clock until those last remaining customers who are able to receive power are restored,” Silagy said.

Residents in more than 22 Florida counties also don’t have clean running water. Boil Water Notices have been issued for 120 areas after damage from Hurricane Ian, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Matlacha resident Cindy Walton, who returned home after evacuating to Miami, said she’d rather have water than electricity.

“If you had a choice between water and electric — give me water. I don’t need electricity; I have a candle. I don’t need to be out at night when it’s dark,” Walton said.

She said the Army Corps has been distributing potable water, but it’s a “precious commodity.”

As families deal with storm-damaged homes and infrastructure, many families across the state are also grieving loved ones.

At least 125 people died because of Ian, officials said — 120 of them in Florida and five in North Carolina. The death toll was revised down Friday after the medical examiner in Lee County reclassified some deaths as non-storm-related, according to Sheriff Carmine Marceno.

At least 40 storm victims had drowning listed as a possible or known circumstance in their deaths, according to data on 72 people provided by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission Tuesday night.

The death toll has been increasing as rescue crews comb through the rubble searching for signs of life. There have been 2,500 rescues made as of Wednesday morning, according to the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

As those efforts continue, it’s unclear how many people are still unaccounted for.

Ian left school divisions in disarray

The damage is keeping many schools closed across hard-hit areas, and those planning to open do not know how many children will show up to class.

Public schools in Collier County are set to open Thursday with the help of more than 800 substitute teachers, since 22% of the district’s teachers live in hard hit Lee County, according to Collier County Public Schools spokesperson Chad Oliver.

But it’s unlikely all the district’s roughly 50,000 students will return.

Several families showed up to a school donation drive Wednesday to say goodbye to teachers. They say their homes are destroyed, and they must move, according to Oliver.

Meanwhile, four school districts in the hardest hit areas remain closed until “further notice,” according to the Florida Department of Education. They include schools in Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and Lee counties. Sarasota County will partially reopen schools Monday.

Officials with Lee County Schools plan to make an announcement regarding the district operation plans by Friday.

Earlier this week, Lee County said a preliminary damage assessment found 54% of their schools were in need of repair and some may be beyond repair.

“We will open when we can, and we will do it safely,” superintendent Christopher Bernier said.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte County School District hopes to have students back in school by October 24.

Speaking on CNN Thursday morning, superintendent Stephen Dionisio said every single one of their school sites received damage, and many buildings suffered roof damage.

“The kids have already dealt with so much, through the last few days, that the last thing you want them to do is to have to learn a whole new school because you got to send them somewhere else,” he said.

Hospitals strained in aftermath of the storm

Ian’s damage has also been straining hospitals in southwest Florida.

Sarasota Memorial Health Care System set up a 30-bed tent facility outside its hospital in Venice, which is in Sarasota County just north of hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties, to help with an influx of patients.

A second disaster medical assistance team opened in Charlotte County “to help reduce the strain in local ERs while hospitals in that region gradually reopen,” a news release from Sarasota Memorial Health Care System said.

“Most hospitals south of Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast were evacuated and remained closed for several days due to damage from the storm. Sarasota Memorial’s Sarasota and Venice campuses have seen record numbers of patients streaming into their emergency care centers, and have worked closely with emergency management officials and hospitals around the state to manage the influx,” hospital officials said.

Florida hospitals were experiencing “significant pressure” on capacity after Hurricane Ian hit, Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, told CNN Monday.

The hurricane damaged emergency departments and displaced many hospital workers. And complicating matters more, some facilities lost reliable access to water.

“We were ready, we had our generators all ready. We had plenty of fuel. What we couldn’t anticipate and didn’t anticipate was the loss of water from our utility companies,” said Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health.

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CNN’s Randi Kaye, Laura Dolan, Jerry Simonson, Amy Simonson, Stephanie Gallman and Amanda Musa contributed to this report.

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