Hurricane Ian killed at least 148 people in Florida, most of them in coastal communities where the danger of storm surge is well documented but not widely understood. Scores drowned as they fled on foot, while in their cars or after seawater swallowed their homes. More than a dozen survived the flood itself but suffered life-threatening medical emergencies; by the time the storm finally allowed paramedics through, nine of them had died.
Ian was one of the deadliest hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the past 20 years.
Much of the catastrophic toll was foreseeable and preventable, an NBC News investigation found. The late September storm exposed shortcomings in how local governments communicate the risk posed by hurricanes, decide when to order evacuations and identify and help the most vulnerable residents.
Ian also illustrated the challenge of protecting densely populated waterfront communities from extreme weather worsened by climate change; thousands of coastal residents chose not to evacuate. Some said they didn’t have enough warning, while others were unaware of the danger or lacked the resources to leave.
The investigation was based on a review of hundreds of death records, an examination of flood maps and interviews with survivors, victims’ relatives, service providers, disaster preparedness experts and current and former public officials.
The deaths from Ian are “very, very tragic,” said Tener Goodwin Veenema, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who lives in Florida.
“There’s a huge lesson for all of us in public health response and emergency management to learn from what we’ve seen here and ramp up our outreach efforts,” she said.
NBC News has identified 148 deaths related to Hurricane Ian in Florida, based on public records obtained from local and state authorities (see the full methodology below). An NBC News analysis found that 119 were attributed specifically to the flooding, winds and other dangerous conditions during the storm. They included 64 drownings, 19 deaths because of delayed medical care, nine falls and eight deaths due to oxygen machines’ failing because of power outages, as well as people who died from infections, car crashes and accidents.
NBC News determined the precise locations of 86 of the 119 deaths and found that two-thirds were in areas the federal government deemed at elevated risk of storm surge in a Category 4 hurricane. Half were in places at risk of 9-foot storm surges or more.
Local and county officials in southwest Florida, one of the fastest-growing regions of the country, are well aware of the danger. They devote huge amounts of time and resources to preparing for hurricanes, with public education campaigns that include free preparedness guides, phone calls, door-to-door canvassing and pre-registration for “special needs” evacuation shelters.
But Hurricane Ian’s toll on vulnerable residents showed the gaps in those efforts. Scores of people on Florida’s southwest coast — and others in flood-prone inland areas — stayed to face the Category 4 storm or tried to run only when the water began to deluge roads and homes.
“The education is out there. As Floridians, we just think we’ve got it. This storm showed us that we don’t,” said Jeannine Joy, the president and CEO of United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades counties.
Most of those who died were over age 65, NBC News’ analysis found, and many of them lived alone. Some had physical or cognitive conditions that made it more difficult for them to seek help before the hurricane arrived, or they chose to stay home because they feared ending up in nursing homes if they sought help, aging services providers said.
Many residents, especially those who were new to the area, didn’t know that they lived in storm surge danger zones, relatives and survivors said. Others underestimated their risks, particularly after Hurricane Irma in 2017, when many residents evacuated but returned to untouched homes, which clouded some people’s understanding of whether they had been in real peril.
Other residents said the evacuation orders came too late. Lee County, which took a direct hit from Ian, waited until the day before the storm — a day longer than neighboring counties — to issue a mandatory evacuation order. The conditions during the storm killed at least 61 people there, more than in any other county. Thirty-three of the Lee County deaths were in the federal government’s documented storm surge danger zone; 28 of those were in the most hazardous areas on barrier islands and directly along the coast.
Lee County officials say they waited to issue the evacuation order until changes in the storm’s forecast direction put the county in Ian’s direct path the day before landfall.
Nearly two months after the hurricane, with funerals still being held and the wrecked landscape still being cleared of debris, experts say the disaster should serve as a warning for communities that continue to build homes in places exposed to increasingly powerful storms — and a reminder to step up efforts to help the defenseless.
“If there’s anything good that comes of this, it’s driving home that, you know, that these things really can kill people,” said Bob Lee, a former Naples city manager.
Vulnerable and overlooked, many older people stayed home
As wind and water battered her tiny home in the island community of Matlacha, Peggy Collson texted her brother in a panic.
“I’m so nervous I could throw up,” she wrote.
Collson, 67, was alone and bedridden with knees so badly deteriorated that she’d spent two years in nursing homes, including for much of the pandemic, when the facilities didn’t allow visitors, her brother, Jim, said. After she returned home in April, a move made possible by daily help from a health aide, Collson vowed not to leave again, even if it meant putting off surgeries that could help her regain the ability to walk.
“I’m not going back to a home,” she told her brother.
In a place with one of America’s highest risks of deadly storm surge, Collson was among the most vulnerable and overlooked.
In recent years, a growing number of older people with impairments have been given the resources — health aides, medical equipment, meal deliveries, paid caregivers — to remain at home instead of spend the rest of their days in nursing homes or assisted living centers. While those facilities have strict rules about keeping residents safe during hurricanes, the people who remain at home don’t have the same level of protection, experts say.
“There has been this assumption that everybody should be able to read these guides and get this information, but it’s not that simple,” said Lindsay Peterson, a research assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies. “Ian brought this gap into focus.”
Service agencies for older adults under contract with the state Department of Elder Affairs keep lists of people to help plan for storms and evacuate, and to conduct welfare checks on clients after a storm has passed. County governments also maintain registries of disabled people who may need to go to special-needs shelters during storms. That system went into effect in southwest Florida ahead of Ian.
But those efforts reach fewer than 13,000 people in a seven-county region with nearly 700,000 people over 60. Many impaired older people are hard to reach because they are afraid of being forced to leave their homes. Some have diagnosed cognitive decline that makes it hard for them to plan ahead or make decisions about whether to evacuate. Others may have lost spouses who handled such things or don’t have nearby family members or neighbors to ask for help.
“During a storm, you will hear this, especially on social media: ‘Why didn’t they just leave? They had notice. They knew days in advance. People were telling them to leave,’” said Crystal Rothhaar, the chief communications officer at the nonprofit Senior Friendship Centers, which helps people in Lee and three other southwest Florida counties plan for hurricanes and checks in on them. Fifteen of the organization’s clients died in Ian.
“But people don’t realize that for older adults who are isolated in their homes and are trying to fly under the radar it’s extremely difficult to leave,” Rothhaar said.
Collson, an avid cook who liked to kid and laugh, stuck firmly to her decision not to leave home, Jim said. Her resolve began to weaken two days before the storm, when she looked into a shelter. But the shelter didn’t have any beds available, just a wheelchair. Collson told her brother she didn’t want to ride out the storm that way — she wasn’t comfortable requiring so much help with so many people around her. Jim and her health aide pleaded with her to change her mind.
On Sept. 27, the day before Ian’s expected arrival, Lee County officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for people close to the coast, including Collson. The order was in response to a change in Ian’s forecast path, which shifted to the south and put Ian on course for a direct hit on the Fort Myers region.
Early the next morning, Collson began to seriously worry. She dialed 911 for help but was told it was too late; rescue operations were on hold until the storm passed, Jim said.
Ian tore through a few hours later, bringing 150 mph winds and a wall of water higher than the area had seen for decades. Collson, who lived on a finger of land 5 miles from the island where the hurricane made landfall, texted Jim as conditions worsened. “The back door just blew off and the water’s coming in,” she wrote that afternoon.
It was her last message to her brother.
Collson’s body was found two days later, in the water several hundred feet from where she lived.
“We were just hoping for the best,” Jim said. “And then we saw satellite pictures of the house, and we knew. We knew it was not a good chance she made it.”
Why warnings went unheard
One of the most common reasons people chose not to leave areas at high risk of storm surge was that they had survived hurricanes before unscathed.
It is human nature for people to measure their risk in a coming storm by comparing it to storms they’ve weathered in the past. But that calculation is wrong, experts say. Every hurricane is different, and slight changes to its path or strength can dramatically change the level of surging water.
As Ian made its approach toward Florida’s southwest coast, many residents thought of the last major storm to come through: Irma, a Category 3 hurricane in 2017, for which nearly 7 million people statewide evacuated. Irma’s forecasts had originally put Fort Myers and the rest of Lee County at risk of a direct hit, with storm surges of up to 15 feet. But the storm shifted east and weakened, and it arrived at low tide.
The $50 billion in damage statewide made Irma Florida’s fifth-costliest hurricane at the time, but the storm still wasn’t as destructive as forecasters had feared. The big surge didn’t happen. Lee County suffered none of the state’s 123 Irma deaths.
That experience influenced many people’s decisions not to flee Hurricane Ian.
Michael Yost was one of them.
Yost moved to Florida 13 years ago from Indiana, and in that time he heard predictions of hurricanes’ bringing deadly storm surges that didn’t come true, Hurricane Irma included.
He had heeded calls to leave before Irma because the Fort Myers Beach home he was living in at the time looked like it was “held together by staples,” he said. It was devastated by Irma’s winds, but many people in the area had returned to undamaged homes.
So as Ian approached the coast, Yost didn’t feel urgency to leave. Living in the same town but in a new home that felt sturdier, he assumed the predictions about storm surge would once again not come to fruition.
“A lot of it came down to the people who cried wolf too many times and nothing happened,” said Yost, 56.
The weekend before Ian hit Florida, forecasters projected that the storm posed the biggest threat to the Tampa area, north of Fort Myers, according to the National Hurricane Center. That began to change on Sunday, Sept. 25, when Ian’s projected path began shifting south, with a growing threat to Lee County. The projected path continued moving south through Monday, the center said.
Lee officials did not yet issue an evacuation, saying Ian’s path remained uncertain. This appears to contradict their own emergency management plan, which calls for evacuations of highest-risk areas with forecasts of 3 to 6 feet of storm surge.
Nearby counties, including Charlotte, issued mandatory evacuation orders for their riskiest areas on Monday afternoon.
Betsy Clayton, Lee County’s spokeswoman, said in an email that Lee’s evacuation order was a “collaborative decision made based on the totality of known circumstances and factors at that time.” The county finally issued the evacuation order when storm surge predictions “drastically increased” the day before landfall, Clayton wrote.
To prepare for such moments, the National Hurricane Center produces maps that show how bad storm surge can be in any particular place on the U.S. coast. The maps are supposed to help people understand their risk and plan what to do when big storms come — and help local governments determine which areas should be evacuated. The agency uses the maps in public education campaigns around the country before the annual start of hurricane season.
“We try to educate people on those worst-case scenarios and their vulnerability,” said Cody Fritz, a storm surge specialist at the National Hurricane Center. “Providing visuals of their vulnerability speaks louder than saying it out loud.”
The message doesn’t always get through.
Elizabeth Dunn, who leads a Hillsborough County community emergency response team that knocks on doors to spread awareness of storm surge threats, said many residents, particularly older ones, still don’t fully understand the danger of not evacuating high-risk areas. Many have moved to Florida in recent years from places where they’d never experienced hurricanes.
“You start explaining to them that this area could get up to 20 feet of storm surge, and they say: ‘What do you mean? Nobody’s ever told me that,’” said Dunn, who teaches disaster response and management at the University of South Florida. “Some people don’t understand the extremes of the risks sometimes and what’s possible.”
Robbie M. Parks, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said that for many people, evacuation is an out-of-reach luxury. Weighing the probability of a deadly storm surge against a crowded shelter or taking into consideration health problems or lack of transportation, many people choose to wait out storms.
“It’s easy to criticize people for not making the right decision from the outside looking in, but there are many, many factors which can play into that decision,” Parks said.
Michael Verdream moved last year from California to Matlacha, where he rented a one-story house and remodeled homes for a living. He’d never been through a hurricane before, and he didn’t have a car.
The morning the storm hit, Verdream, 66, told his niece Stacy Verdream that he planned to ride it out. At 2:30 p.m., he spoke to another relative, saying the water was 4 feet high and he had to hang up, Stacy said.
His body was found two days after the storm in a canal near his home.
“I wish he would have called,” said Stacy, who lives in Orlando. “I would have gone and picked him up.”
‘I was ready to say my last prayer’
By dawn on Tuesday, Sept. 27, Ian’s projected path put Lee County in the storm’s crosshairs. Over the previous 24 hours, the expected landfall had shifted about 80 miles south, according to the National Hurricane Center. At 7 a.m., Lee County officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for the county’s highest-risk areas. The directive expanded throughout the day to include other imperiled areas. By then, the center was warning about surges as high as 12 feet.
There wasn’t much time to get out. Lee County’s emergency management website says it can take 41 hours to evacuate people; Ian made landfall about 32 hours after the first evacuation order.
The Tuesday morning order surprised Matthew Hoffman, who has lived in Fort Myers Beach for more than a decade. He contrasted the delay to what happened during Hurricane Irma, when the county’s evacuation order was announced three days before landfall. Hoffman had evacuated for that storm.
But Lee County had kept its schools open on Monday, Sept. 26, two days before Ian’s arrival, as did Charlotte County. Hoffman, who has three kids and pets, took that as a sign that officials didn’t see a big threat. By the time the evacuation orders came, Hoffman recalled thinking, it was too late. “To make those arrangements is a little complicated to do at the last minute,” he said.
On the morning of Sept. 28, officials ordered people who hadn’t left to shelter in place, because venturing out could put them at greater risk. They were now on their own. The storm hit that afternoon.
Hoffman and his family watched with alarm as the water rose around their house, cresting just short of the walls. “There was nothing else we could really do,” he said.
They survived, and their house wasn’t seriously damaged.
Yost, the Fort Myers Beach man who’d also decided to stay, said he learned that he was in the most dangerous surge zone only the night before Ian made landfall, when a radio broadcast informed him that his home was at risk of storm surge of more than 9 feet in a Category 4 hurricane. By then, Yost, who doesn’t have a car and gets around on an electric bicycle, didn’t think he had much choice but to remain.
The surge snapped Yost’s mailbox, rising from about 3 feet to about 10 feet in 10 minutes. Houses floated by. Trucks bobbed past. He screamed at the storm from behind rattling windows. He and his girlfriend made a plan to hop on an air mattress if they needed to make a last-ditch attempt to save themselves. But the water finally stopped rising.
After the storm, he climbed out of his house and went looking for his two closest friends in Fort Myers Beach, Mitch Pacyna and Daymon Utterback.
Yost went to check on Pacyna first and discovered his house had been destroyed. As Yost stood looking at the debris, a neighbor came over to tell him that Pacyna hadn’t survived. Stunned, Yost went to Utterback’s house. He found Utterback’s body stuck in a window. Both Utterback, 54, and Pacyna, 74, had drowned.
Yost said he and others were lulled into a “false sense of security” by past storms and the lack of urgency around Ian. “They really gave us a lot of heads up during Irma. It seemed like in this one, it was like, OK, tomorrow you gotta get out of here,” Yost said.
Theresa Conway, Utterback’s fiancée who he was set to marry in April, said by the time they realized how bad the hurricane was, so much water was rushing down their street that they couldn’t get out — not even to cross to their neighbors’ elevated house.
Utterback began looking for ways for the couple to escape, while Conway tried to keep her head above the water as it rose toward the ceiling, she said. Utterback tried to get out the kitchen window but became trapped.
“The water got up to my neck. I was ready to say my last prayer and the water stopped and started receding,” Conway said.
She made her way to the kitchen, where she discovered her fiancé’s body.
Conway described Utterback, who loved to bring people a smile by dressing up as a pirate, as the “kindest, sweetest, big-hearted big kid.”
She said they were blindsided by the storm’s ferocity.
“It wasn’t supposed to be hitting us,” Conway said. “I never would have dare dreamed to have a hurricane like this hit Fort Myers Beach and for us to be on the worst side possible of it.”
Lee County officials declined requests for interviews about how they prepare residents for hurricanes, communicate risks and decide the timing of evacuation orders.
Clayton, the county’s spokeswoman, said in an email that the government held about two dozen hurricane seminars for the public from April to August. The county’s emergency management director also hosted a “media day” with local news outlets and the county issued multiple warnings and notices on its website and on social media in the days and hours before the storm. And the county printed 48,000 “all hazards guides” for free distribution, Clayton wrote.
Like all counties in southwest Florida, Lee County maintains a registry for those who might need special-needs shelters. Lee’s has 2,700 people on it.
In neighboring Charlotte County, where nine people died from Ian, spokesman Brian Gleason said the government conducts a variety of public outreach efforts, including workshops about flood and storm-surge risks for people in high-hazard coastal areas. But the county relies more on social media, its website and an emergency messaging system to reach large numbers of people.
“Being prepared for a hurricane is understanding that if you’re in an evacuation zone and an evacuation is ordered, you carry out a disaster plan. What you do is up to you,” Gleason said. “Any death, whether it’s a car accident or storm surge, is tragic. Some are preventable. We expect that Hurricane Ian opened a lot of people’s eyes about the danger of storm surge and what to do if you’re in an evacuation zone.”
Experts said the decision about when to order an evacuation is hard to get right.
Craig Fugate, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said ordering evacuations carries its own risks. “Everything from traffic crashes to moving vulnerable populations can result in deaths,” he said.
On the east coast of Florida, Volusia County opted for only a voluntary evacuation order ahead of Ian. That decision was partly based on initial forecasts for a hurricane that had weakened into a tropical storm, as well as Ian’s westward and inland approach into the county, said Jim Judge, Volusia County’s emergency management director. When storms and hurricanes come into the county from the east, officials typically mandate coastal areas to evacuate because those storms bring deadly surges off the Atlantic, he said.
Ian’s forecast called for heavy rains, but ultimately, the storm brought more rainfall than expected, and with stronger winds, Judge said. It slowed over Volusia County, dumping nearly 21 inches of rain in some areas and bringing gusts of up to 96 mph that battered coastal zones with near king tides, he said. Seven people died, three of them in high-risk surge zones.
Still, county officials said they made the right call.
“If we ring the alarm bell too loud every time, what happens is the public starts losing the sense of urgency or threat,” Judge said. “Then it’s: ‘Oh, they called for a mandatory last time and nothing happened.’”
A lesson for future storms
Plenty of people who stayed in the danger zone did so knowingly and willingly — and some refused offers of help.
They included Kristina Peters, 59, who chose to stay with her boyfriend in North Fort Myers, where they lived a baseball’s throw away from the Gulf of Mexico. Her son Robert DeMoss drove to her house soon after Lee County’s evacuation order was issued and begged her to come home with him about 15 minutes inland.
The forecasters were comparing Ian to Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm that hit the area in 2004. Peters had safely ridden that storm out at home, and she told her son she would be fine this time, too.
By the time Peters realized she was wrong, water had already started gushing into her home. Around 4:30 p.m. that day, Peters called DeMoss in a panic. “The water is rising,” she told him.
But he was alone at home with a newborn child, and the roads were too dangerous.
“Mom, I can’t come get you,” DeMoss recalled saying. That upset her. They hung up, and DeMoss hoped she’d be fine.
The next day, with phone lines down, he drove to her house and found her body.
“There is no one to blame. There is no one to be mad at. There’s just me having to find peace with the fact that she has passed away and going through all those emotions and dealing with the phone call,” DeMoss said. “After it’s all said and done, the only thing that I hope is that she wasn’t mad at me.”
Daniel Noah, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tampa, said that regardless of the effort by local officials and forecasters, there will be people who don’t leave and die because of it.
“This is something we talk about every year, how to reach people,” he said. “We are banging our heads against the wall, because it keeps happening.”
In the end, Ian may have accomplished what years of education efforts and disaster planning didn’t: convince everyone on Florida’s southwest coast that hurricanes and storm surges kill.
“Hurricane Ian is going to be the strongest outreach messaging for southwest Florida ever,” said Gleason, the Charlotte County spokesman. “When you live through it, then that message sinks in deep and forever.”
NBC News reporters submitted more than 60 public records requests to local and state police agencies, medical examiners’ offices and emergency management agencies to collect 911 and emergency dispatch recordings, police reports, autopsy records and other documents to account for the dead. They matched those records to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s official list of hurricane deaths and did additional reporting to find out where hurricane victims died or were fatally injured, whenever possible.
Based on those records, NBC News determined an overall count of 148 deaths related to Hurricane Ian and analyzed 119 of those deaths that were caused by the flooding, winds and other dangerous conditions during the storm. (The 29 other deaths were in post-storm accidents and suicides, in addition to one homicide in which a contractor was shot.) The list of 148 deaths excluded cases without clear connections to the storm, such as three instances in which people with pre-existing medical conditions died from natural causes.