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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Vulnerable and trapped: A look at those lost in Hurricane Ian

A woman in Pine Island, Fla., on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. When Hurricane Ian slammed into the southwest Florida coast last month, those who did not evacuate faced conditions so dangerous that rescues were sometimes impossible.

By Eliza Fawcett, Mitch Smith, Ava Sasani, Frances Robles and Eden Weingart

Rose Marie Santangelo had weathered many hurricanes in her decades living near the water outside this city. She thought she was prepared for Hurricane Ian, too.

But like so many other Floridians, Santangelo, 73, a beloved aunt who had retired from a career in radiation oncology, underestimated this storm.

“She really thought that it wouldn’t hit here,” said Phyllis Santangelo, a niece. “And then when it did take a turn, I think she knew it was going to be bad.”

Ian caused more deaths in Florida — at least 114 — than any hurricane in almost 90 years. Five other people died from the storm in North Carolina, as well as one in Virginia. Like Santangelo, residents became trapped in floodwaters inside their homes. Others stopped breathing when power outages left oxygen machines inoperable. Or they perished in cars as the storm surge rose.

But the storm’s impact, while broadly felt, was not even.

Most of the victims were older adults. Two-thirds of them were 60 or older, and 30 were past their 80th birthdays.

The people who died were concentrated in exposed coastal areas and on barrier islands. Although deaths were reported in 21 counties, nearly half came from Lee County, in southwest Florida.

And a large number of victims — at least 58 — drowned, as Ian’s size, relatively slow movement and massive storm surge multiplied its threat.

As residents sort through the wreckage in Florida, a look at who died and where revealed how an aging population on the coast proved especially vulnerable to Ian. In many cases, the people who died had preexisting medical problems, waited too long to evacuate and were trapped by floodwaters. In some of the hardest-hit areas, evacuation orders that were delayed amid a shifting storm track added to the confusion.

Many victims had significant medical problems.

As Hurricane Ian neared southwest Florida, Peggy Collson, 67, became increasingly worried about her ability to survive. She lived alone on the island community of Matlacha, in a modest one-story house along the water that had withstood previous hurricanes. But Collson, who received daily care from nurse’s aides and could not walk without assistance, knew she would be at risk.

A few days before the hurricane, she tried to make arrangements to leave the island, said her brother Jim Collson, who lives in New York. But she ultimately decided to stay. The morning of the storm, Sept. 28, her fears magnified.

“She was so nervous she was sick to her stomach,” he said.

Peggy Collson drowned. She was found floating in a canal a few blocks from her home.

Evacuating was especially challenging for many older Floridians with health problems, leaving them with limited options.

And there was Santangelo, who had a years-old back injury and often used a walker around her pink two-bedroom home.

As the hurricane approached, Santangelo was in touch with family members in her home state of Ohio. But by the afternoon of Sept. 28, she had stopped responding to their calls and text messages. When a neighbor stopped by to check on her the next day, a sheriff’s incident report said, he found her dead on the kitchen floor. She had drowned.

Five of Santangelo’s nieces and nephews came from Ohio to clear out the house. Ten days after the storm, they stood around her candlelit kitchen island, drinking their aunt’s favorite pinot grigio. They planned to spread her ashes around her palm trees.

“She was loved so much,” Phyllis Santangelo said. “She never had children; we were her kids.”

Ian’s death toll was historic, but exact data can be fuzzy.

On Oct. 1, in the immediate aftermath of Ian’s brutal impact on southwest Florida, a spokesperson for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office said in an email that “we currently have 23 deaths that are directly or indirectly related to the storm.” She added that the local medical examiner would later determine official causes of death. Two days later, she said the death toll in Charlotte County had risen to 24.

But as of this week, the medical examiner there had linked only eight of those deaths to Hurricane Ian, deciding that most of the rest were not caused by the storm after all.

The difference in the numbers in Charlotte County underscores the subjective science of determining which deaths that occurred during the storm were caused by it, at least in part.

Some findings are obvious, as when a person drowns after their house floods during a hurricane. But some are less clear.

In other Florida counties, medical examiners added four suicides, a homicide, car crashes and several heart attacks to the state’s official hurricane death toll, determining that circumstances caused by the storm contributed to the deaths.

It is relatively common for death counts to change: In Lee County, the medical examiner decided that six deaths reported by the sheriff were not connected to Ian. Some Florida counties continued to add deaths this week, meaning the current count may not be final.

Some left home, then became trapped.

Ian Conway, 61, a retired pilot, lived in a tan one-bedroom house in a mobile home community in Estero, on the banks of the Estero River. Living in a flood-prone area, he had always assured Margot Conway, one of his two daughters, that he would go to a shelter if a serious hurricane came through.

The morning that Hurricane Ian hit, he sent an email to his siblings saying that he was headed to a shelter, Margot Conway said. But he never made it there.

Just before 7 a.m. the next day, a neighbor called her in Washington state. Her father had been found dead from drowning, draped over a bench at the shuffleboard court across the street from his home.

His death was one of several in which people left home, either to seek shelter, make final preparations or assess damage, only to wind up becoming victims.

This past summer, Ian Conway’s health had worsened. Margot Conway, an emergency room nurse, had urged her father to go into assisted living, but he wanted to live on his own.

Ten days after the hurricane, she spent a quiet moment at the funeral home with her father’s remains, playing his favorite song by The Smiths.

“I got to say goodbye,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to.”

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