Rescue crews got their first chance to survey the damage of Hurricane Ian on Thursday morning as people from across the country scrambled to contact loved ones and neighbors in Fort Myers, Naples, Sanibel Island and elsewhere in southwest Florida. The full extent of the damage was not yet known, but videos taken and shared by fire crews, police helicopters and people stuck in their homes showed massive wreckage.
Minnesota's connections to that part of Florida run deep. It's long been a favorite of vacationers and retirees, a place to escape winter, home to a number of Minnesota Vikings bars and Twins' spring training spot.
"The surge was unheard of," said Jessica Payne of Naples. "We've never seen anything like this, anything close to this."
Payne was born and grew up in Naples, but her mother is from St. Paul. She was raised a Vikings fan and started a group for Minnesota ex-pats and snowbirds to watch the Vikings together at her neighborhood bar, Dylan's Drafthouse. She did it to create a sense of home, she said.
"I was lucky and didn't lose anything but a few trees," Payne said. "I have friends who had 3 feet of surge run through their home."
The damage was most extensive along the coastline, where Naples suffered a record-breaking storm surge that turned roads into rivers, flooded homes and left at least a few people stranded on their roofs, according to reporters from the Naples Daily News.
The city's pier was destroyed, at least half of it washing into the Gulf. The pier is a local landmark and hot spot for shark and sheepshead fishermen, where dolphins gather to pull the bait off angler's hooks and pelicans scoop up anything people throw back. Farther inland, buildings were largely spared the worst of the flooding. There may be a chance that Dylan's — the Vikings bar — will still open early on Sunday for the next game, Payne said.
"That's the beautiful thing about this, is everyone comes together at times like this making sure we're all right," she said. "Everyone is just trying to help."
The Lee County Sheriff's Office warned that the death toll could be high. Deputies surveyed the Fort Myers area by helicopter Thursday morning, and took video of washed-out roads, destroyed bridges, collapsed and burning homes, flooded hotels and towers. The bridge connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland was severed.
Blaine Lokhorst, who's from Fergus Falls, moved to Fort Myers in 2017 for work. It was tough to prepare for the hurricane because it seemed like it was going to hit north until it turned directly toward the city, he said. He boarded up his windows, moved the furniture to the second floor and took his family to Miami, where they waited out the storm.
"We have neighbors that checked on our home and it sounds like we're very fortunate and there's no water in the house at all," he said. "But every neighborhood around us got water in their homes. It's very crazy. This is going to take a lot of time to rebuild."
Volunteers from Minnesota, and from much of the rest of the country, were poised to help as soon as roads and airports reopened. A team of nearly 300 linemen from Xcel Energy staged overnight in Orlando to help reconnect cities to power.
"When the call for help comes in, Xcel Energy and the entire electric industry answers that call," Bob Frenzel, chairman, president and CEO, said in a statement.
About 60 volunteers from the Red Cross of Minnesota and the Dakotas were ready to bring in food, water and other supplies, said spokeswoman Lynette Nyman.
"We have four emergency relief trucks on the ground and on their way," she said.
The Minnesota Twins evacuated players and employees at their spring training stadium in Fort Myers. The team turned over its dormitories and parking lot to first responders and power companies to allow workers to sleep and stage equipment, said spokesman Matt Hodson.
"We're still gathering info on the damage and making sure our staff and their families are safe," he said.
Voyageurs National Park has offered its rangers, as well as boats and other equipment, to help rescue and recovery operations. They haven't been needed so far, but are ready to go if that changes, said Josh Wentz, the park's chief ranger.
In the meantime, a lot of people are waiting to check on their homes, condos and property.
"Everybody has some damage," said Arne Carlson, former Minnesota governor who has a home in Punta Gorda. "It sounds like our area didn't get the storm surge, but it looks like we lost part of our roof, and the living room floor has been flooded. It's going to be a mess."