VENICE, Fla. – Battling rising waters by boat and on horseback, rescuers pulled stranded residents from their homes and herded livestock to higher ground as the Myakka River overflowed its banks Saturday.
Locals and rescue workers, long familiar with how hurricanes push water into their neighborhoods, said Hurricane Ian caused unusually high flooding, which occurred three days after the storm passed.
The strong storm surge was compounded by hours of heavy rain in Central Florida, leading to deep inland flooding. Several longtime residents blamed the new developments for destroying historic floodplains capable of absorbing water.
“We’re used to flooding, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jennifer Stringer, 50, a high school teacher who has lived along the river since 2011. “All this water has nowhere to go.”
High water forced a nearly 24-hour closure of Interstate 75 over the river while engineers assessed damage to bridge piers about seven miles inland from the coast. The closure caused major traffic jams Friday night as returning evacuees struggled to get home.
‘WE HAVE THE LAST’:After Hurricane Ian hits Fort Myers, residents of the black neighborhood say they’re not counting on much help
Stringer said when he left his home two days earlier, the water was 6 inches below the front door of his stilt house. The water was significantly higher on Saturday and he worried about what he would find as he climbed into a small boat to float down the road to his neighborhood.
“The worst thing I’ve ever seen here”
On Saturday afternoon, a flotilla of boats buzzed around the neighborhood, from small fishing boats to kayaks and paddle boards.
Bruce Phillips, 61, climbed aboard a borrowed kayak to paddle to his longtime home on Border Road near Sleeping Turtles Park. He and his family have lived there for 45 years, and he was afraid of what he would find.
Phillips evacuated his elderly mother before the storm hit and returned Saturday to check on the property. Phillips recalled minor flooding during previous storms and floating around in 55-gallon jerry cans as a child. Ian, he said, was different.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it here,” he said.
Most of the flooding occurred inland in Venice, affecting several cattle and horse farms, including Stepping Stones Farms, where volunteers swam eight horses to dry land on Saturday.
HOW A QUIET SEASON EXPLODED:Ian, Fiona dashed hopes of a quiet hurricane season. What’s next?
“Man, that’s a lot of water”
“He sees the water and he’s like, ‘man, that’s a lot of water.’ It’s crazy,” said Jason White, 40, who helped tear down the fences so his friends could get the animals out. “But horses intuitively know what to do.”
Chelsea Sunderman, 33, went out with a horse named Ringo and took a swimming selfie. He said he helped rescue a calf the night before and returned Saturday to help other volunteers with the horses.
“I can’t believe we did it,” Sunderman said after loading Ringo into a horse trailer for evacuation.
Stepping Stones Farm owner Scott Benge, 54, said getting the horses into a safe barn where they could feed and drink was a huge relief. He said he and his family had been wading through the waters as they came up, trying to keep the horses fed, watered and safe.
SAVING PETS:He rescued cats and dogs in the middle of the war in Ukraine. Now he’s saving animals from Ian’s wrath.
“It’s a huge burden lifted off our shoulders,” he said. “We can ride in a boat, but horses can’t.”
A half-mile away, 27-year-old Keith Stafford sat in the bed of his pickup looking out at the water surrounding his home. Stafford and his friends drove through the water earlier in the day when it had been lower.
“We’re fine, but it’s definitely the highest I’ve seen it here. We went through Hurricane Charley and it’s not even close to what we’re seeing,” he said. “Now we have our own private island.”
Worry time was running out
Authorities had no reports of deaths from the flooding, but were concerned about the safety of a water treatment plant in Sarasota County.
By Saturday afternoon, the waters were still rising and Nikki Duyn was worrying aloud about her neighbors and livestock.
Duyn’s house was spared, but she worried about the cows and goats still stuck on the grassy islands within the flooded areas. His family spent several days helping to pull horses and other livestock out of flooded areas, and Duyn shared his work on TiKTok with his 56,000 followers, prompting a flood of requests for help.
As the sun began to set over the flooded neighborhood, Duyn worried that there wasn’t enough time to help everyone, despite the best efforts of her husband and their large family.
Even her 12-year-old son, Cody, pressed into service as a rescue boat captain, zooming over fences, dodging submerged mailboxes and circling the neighbor’s flooded yards.
“It just keeps coming,” Duyn said.