At seven o’clock Wednesday evening, the Tampa Bay Times’ most experienced hurricane reporter and photographer duo headed outside. They’d been hunkering down in a hotel room in Fort Myers, about 12 miles out from Florida’s southwest coast, waiting for the worst of Hurricane Ian — what is likely one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in the region’s history — to pass through. “They were able to hike the first part of the Sanibel Island causeway on foot to assess,” managing editor Carolyn Fox told me Thursday morning. “They were hoping they’d get to the island, but instead they found that the causeway had a large chunk missing.” At 2 AM, reporter Zachary T. Sampson and photojournalist Douglas R. Clifford reported that the pavement leading up to the Sanibel Causeway had “folded up like an accordion, ripped to ribbons by a powerful storm surge.” At 4:15 AM, they found a section of the causeway had disappeared, writing, “Crumbled pavement lies near the water’s edge. The rest of the bridge stretches forward, unreachable.”
The Tampa Bay Times is among the slew of local news outlets working tirelessly through Ian, which made initial landfall in Florida on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm but has since weakened to a tropical storm. The disaster has brought “historic” damage to Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday morning, at which point more than 2.5 million people were still without power. “We’ve never seen a flood event like this. We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” DeSantis said, noting the situation remained hazardous. Carmine Marceno, the sheriff of Lee County—which includes Fort Myers—said “fatalities are in the hundreds,” and “there are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued.”
Earlier in the week, the storm was poised to hit Tampa Bay head on; by Tuesday the storm’s track had shifted east, eventually making landfall south of Tampa Bay and sparing the area the most severe weather. Fox had evacuated in her car to Orlando Monday evening not knowing if her house would be intact when she returned. While a number of staff remained within non-evacuation areas of the Tampa Bay region, the paper also deployed a few go-teams—including the duo in Fort Myers—to be their “eyes and ears on the ground in the worst hit parts of Florida once the storm passes,” said Fox, adding, “no one is standing in the middle of a storm in our newsroom.”
Reporters with the Weather Channel, however, were, including Jim Cantore, who struggled to stay upright in 61 mph winds, with gusts up to 110 mph, near Fort Myers and was struck by a flying tree branch.
Many reporters and editors for Fort Myers’ News-Press and Naples Daily News stayed on the story from their home, with dispatches of what they were seeing in their respective neighborhoods. As for the national outlets, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell and NBC’s Lester Holt both led their broadcasts from Florida on Wednesday, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted. His colleague John Berman, along with other CNN correspondents and anchors, also reported from Florida on Wednesday. ABC, Fox News, and MSNBC also had people on the ground. Fox Weather on Thursday broadcasted from Fort Myers, with correspondent Robert Ray surrounded by the damage.
Much of the impact from the storm might not be clear until tomorrow or Saturday, Fox said. On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times pulled together a running update of bridge and road closures “because a lot of what we’re probably going to see is just down trees and power lines in Tampa Bay. We’re still waiting to see how our rivers react,” she said. In the meantime, the newspaper is deploying two extra go-teams down south, to the two counties—Lee and Charlotte—hit hardest thus far. Following up with their neighbors as they figure out how to rebuild will be a priority the Times. “We are very concerned about everyone in the communities south of us, and heartbroken to see some of the footage,” Fox said. “I know there are newspapers down there that are right in the middle of it.”