IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Stuck in limbo, families of people missing after Hurricane Ian endure an agonizing wait for news

“I’m getting panic attacks. I’m crying a lot. I’m angry. I’m everything. The not knowing is killing me,” said a woman whose father has not been heard from since the storm.
The destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Oct. 2, 2022.
The destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Oct. 2. Win McNamee / Getty Images

Hours before Hurricane Ian decimated a small Fort Myers Beach marina, James “Denny” Hurst’s daughter sent him a panicked text.

“It’s shifted South,” Shannon Vaughan wrote after seeing the forecast on the news. “Please if you can get off that boat.”

“I am not and cannot leave my boat now,” Hurst, who uses a walker and has a portable oxygen tank, texted back. 

James "Denny" Hurst.
James "Denny" Hurst.Lee County Sheriff's Office

The 72-year-old stayed put. Vaughan’s calls and texts to her dad since then have gone unanswered.

“I’m getting panic attacks. I’m crying a lot. I’m angry. I’m everything,” Vaughan said. “The not knowing is killing me.”

More than three weeks after Ian crashed ashore, Hurst is one of at least five people who remain missing in Florida, according to tallies from law enforcement agencies.

More than 135 people have been confirmed dead by an NBC News count, and their families have begun holding funerals. But the relatives and friends of those still missing are caught in limbo: unable to begin grieving a loss that hasn’t been confirmed, yet increasingly doubtful they will see their loved ones again.

“We have accepted the fact that he is, for all intents and purposes, deceased,” said Vaughan, of Rancho Mirage, California. “But just find the body. Find the boat, you’ll find the body.”

Ilonka Knes, 82, is one of three missing Lee County residents. Her husband was found dead near their Fort Myers Beach home after drowning in the storm, officials said. 

Ivonka Knes
Ilonka Knes.Lee County Sheriff's Office

“She wouldn’t have left him. He wouldn’t have left her. If they were going to go out, they were going to go out together,” said Amy Keenum, a family friend who lives in Fort Myers. “There’s so many questions. Did she wash away? Is she somewhere on the island? It’s devastating.” 

Desperate for information, many have been spreading the word about their missing loved ones on social media. In a Facebook group called “Key West Lost, Found and Stolen,” sandwiched between posts about lost keys and a stolen bike, a woman asked for help finding her mother and her stepfather, Betsy Morales Soto and Omar Millet Torres.

“Looking for a vessel named SALTY MERMAID,” the post read. “Please any info or updates contact me ASAP.”

The Monroe County couple was last heard from Sept. 27, the night before the hurricane, when Millet Torres texted his mother: “‘Please pray for us.” 

“She was already asleep,” his older sister, Lorraine Millet, said. “When she woke up, she tried to contact them. But no communication.”

That night, the couple had reported their vessel’s anchor line had broken and the boat was adrift, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The two were aboard with their dog near Wisteria Island in the Lower Keys.

Betsy Morales Soto and Omar Millet Torres.
Betsy Morales Soto and Omar Millet Torres.Courtesy Lorraine Millet

While Morales, 47, and Torres, 44, are still considered missing by the sheriff’s office, the Coast Guard suspended its search Oct. 4.

“The decision to suspend a search is never easy and is only made after careful consideration of all the available facts,” Lt. Cmdr. Elizabeth Tatum, search and rescue mission coordinator, Sector Key West, said in a statement. 

The sheriff’s office said it is not actively searching for the couple. But the case remains open, it said, and if provided any evidence of their whereabouts, it would investigate further.

The family has since hired its own private investigator. 

“We have to do whatever is in our hands,” Millet said. “I won’t have peace of mind until I see them. Every minute counts, every second.”

There have been some reunions, though, for families of some missing people. But the wait felt endless for them. 

For 23 days after the storm hit, Jessica Byrd of Picayune, Mississippi, did not hear from her brother, David Weaver, 37, who is homeless.

Byrd said her last communication with him was when he was in the Lee County jail, where he spent several weeks for failing to appear for an earlier court date before being released in July. He had told family he would not have a place to live when he was let out.

She was frantically trying to find out if he had survived the storm, but she didn’t know how to reach him. 

On Friday morning, she received the call she had been waiting for. Weaver had survived the hurricane by hiding behind buildings. Without a phone, he was not able to call family until a cousin who lives in the area found him and connected him with his sister.

While advocacy groups encouraged homeless people to stay at shelters in advance of the storm, many did not take the offer, said Therese Everly, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition.

Since Ian, a variety of organizations have tried to track down those who remained on the streets, she added. But some homeless people refuse help, and some do not want to be connected with family. 

“Even before Ian, it was like that. Now, it’s magnified,” Everly said. 

'It’s like it’s not even real’

The search for Hurst continues and has involved divers and other teams, said the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, which is overseeing the investigation. 

Hurst had made his boat, named “Good Girl,” his home for about a decade. He had retired from a telecommunications job and spent his time on the sailboat day trading and enjoying the sunshine — usually shirtless, according to his nephew, Christian Hurst, who described his uncle as “the pirate of the family.” 

Denny Hurst had suffered numerous health problems. In 2019, he fell off his bike and broke his leg, his daughter Vaughan said. During surgery, he had a massive heart attack while under anesthesia and almost died, the family said. 

He was on a ventilator in a medically induced coma for a couple of weeks and later spent several months in a rehabilitation center. 

Then, “he pretty much walked out and said, ‘Who’s meeting me at the bar?’” Christian Hurst said.

His family was not sure how much food and water Hurst had onboard.

“I can’t say for sure,” Vaughan said. “I can say for sure that he had beer.”

The family’s wait for news was complicated by false information. Six days after the storm, a group that said it was helping with reunification efforts told them Hurst had been found safe. 

The family was ecstatic. But when two days went by with no word from him, Vaughan called the sheriff’s office and was devastated to find out it couldn’t corroborate the report. 

As she awaits updates, Vaughan has kept herself busy by focusing on her job as an accounting bookkeeper and speaking with family members. 

“We’re all just kind of numb and in shock,” she said. “It’s like it’s not even real."