‘This place looks like it’s been bombed out’: Florida communities devastated by Hurricane Ian – 60 Minutes

It’s been 11 days since Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 monster of a storm, tore across central Florida. Even in a state no stranger to hurricanes, the devastation in Ian’s wake is staggering: more than 100 deaths, most by drowning; societies in pieces; the price tag for recovery estimated at more than 100 billion We went to ground zero, on Florida’s southwest coast, where Ian first roared ashore and where the hurricane’s fury was most severe.

When Hurricane Ian’s violence erupted on Sanibel Island, the Sprecher family fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. On Wednesday, a week after the storm devastated the island, the family went back to see what was left of the place they had called home for nearly 20 years.

Milissa Sprecher: Where are we? I can’t even say it.

Ian cut off the causeway connecting Sanibel to the mainland, so the Sprechers returned by boat.

Milissa Sprecher: You wouldn’t even know this is home.

John and Milissa spokesperson

We were invited to go home with them to see the damage done as the Category 4 hurricane plowed into Florida. John Sprecher told us the devastation was overwhelming.

John Sprecher: This place looks like it’s been bombed out. And I, you know, I remember our kids playing in the sand when they were a few years old.

Milissa Sprecher told us she had trouble keeping track.

Milissa Sprecher: There’s no bridge, there’s no ferry right now, there’s nowhere to live, there’s no running water, there’s no electricity, there’s no air conditioning, there’s nothing. Everyone on this island is currently homeless.

Their house is only a block from the beach, usually a few minutes walk they said, but not this day. The path was covered in thick, sticky mud.

Milissa Sprecher: Watch the mud because you will… it’s very slippery.

6,500 people live on Sanibel. The place that the speakers described as a tropical paradise is now a wasteland. Cars tossed like toys by the storm surge, it stripped the asphalt from their path.

Bill Whitaker: This was paved?

Milissa Sprecher: This was paved.

As they approached the house, the scene was surreal—a beautiful Florida day, the kind that had drawn John and Milissa here from Wisconsin years ago, as the home and life they built lay battered under the sun.

Milissa Sprecher: I’m shocked.

They had held pool parties in the yard, celebrated birthdays and graduations in these rooms. Now with the roof gone and exposing a lifetime’s accumulations to the elements, they salvage what memories they can take on a small boat.

The Sprecher family’s home

John Sprecher: Grandma and Grandpa pictures.

Milissa Sprecher: Yes, grandma and grandpa pictures. To be able to have pictures and things that the kids have made and be able to take them, that’s huge.

Bill Whitaker: Yes.

Milissa Sprecher: I’m shocked that we have anything, anything.

Bill Whitaker: Have you been in touch with your insurance?

Milissa Sprecher: We have, yes.

Bill Whitaker: Will you be able to build back what was lost?

Milissa Sprecher: I don’t know, I don’t know.

John Sprecher: We don’t even know if we want to honestly.

Bill Whitaker: Really?

Milissa Sprecher: I would think a lot of people will leave this.

Bill Whitaker: Are the phones ringing off the hook?

Brian Chapman: Monday morning we were getting about 15– 15 calls a minute.

Brian Chapman

Brian Chapman owns Chapman Insurance Group, one of the largest independent insurance agencies in Southwest Florida, with approximately 30,000 clients, many of whom live on Sanibel Island and in hard-hit Fort Myers. Seven of his employees lost their homes; his offices suffered water damage and lost power.

Bill Whitaker: With this hurricane, you had wind gusts up to 150 miles per hour. You had a massive storm surge. How will the two arms of this hurricane affect the benefits your homeowners will receive?

Brian Chapman: This is where it gets a little complicated because you have two policies, one for flood and one for wind.

Bill Whitaker: Why is it so complicated?

Brian Chapman: Well, did the wind damage happen first or did the water rise? And was there wind damage before it flooded? And it’s hard to know the answer to that question.

And only 18% of Florida homeowners have flood insurance.

Bill Whitaker: So why so few?

Brian Chapman: Because it’s expensive. But not as expensive as what just happened.

Chapman says he fears Ian will only exacerbate an ongoing problem in Florida’s insurance market. 80 percent of all homeowner’s insurance cases in the country are filed here. Most large insurance companies have gone way back, small insurance companies are being squeezed. Six went bankrupt this year.

Bill Whitaker: What has all this done to prizes?

Brian Chapman: Double digit, triple digit increases in the last 24 months.

Brian Chapman: My policy personally was $3,500, then $7,000 and now $10,000. And that doesn’t include the flood insurance.

Bill Whitaker: Who can afford it?

Brian Chapman: It’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable.

Bill Whitaker: We were on Sanibel Island yesterday and the devastation is widespread. If you are out there, what hope do you have of recovering from this?

Brian Chapman: It’s going to be a long road to recovery. Those who have given up insurance, I am sure there will be some who will sell their real estate or their land.

Damage from Hurricane Ian

All this was brought on by a hurricane that quickly spun into an electrified killer. Fueled by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Ian took just two days to grow from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm, packing winds of 150 miles per hour and fueling a storm surge that drowned coastal communities in 12 feet water. The one-two punch was compounded by catastrophic rain. The storm dumped more than 20 inches on central Florida, swelling rivers and flooding neighborhoods in a swath that stretched across the state.

Bill Whitaker: Did you know this was going to be a monster?

Bobby Quinn: I did.

As Ian approached, Tampa native Bobby Quinn, a former Air Force forecaster, private pilot and tech company founder, wanted to help, so he drove south into the heart of the hurricane.

Bobby Quinn: Kind of hard to leave this place…

And got more than he bargained for.

Bobby Quinn

Bobby Quinn: There was no place to go. There were trees flying by when I was in the truck and wind that would have flipped my truck if I had moved out behind that wall. I tried at one point and the wheels came off the ground.

After 13 harrowing hours, he began to use his talents. Quinn runs a Tampa-based tech start-up called Paypixl, which crowd-sources drone footage and organizes it on an app. When Ian hit, he modified his website to allow evacuees to view photos of their homes and assess the damage for free.

Bobby Quinn: You see the debris field, you see the destruction in the back. Now you can turn off the satellite images and see previous event. This is how it looked before the storm.

Bill Whitaker: How about that?

Bobby Quinn: And if we add our street photos, someone can click in and see what that house looks like—

Bill Whitaker: Oh, wow.

Bobby Quinn: -from the front after the storm.

Bill Whitaker: So you have the whole event. Before, after, ground level.

Bobby Quinn: That’s correct.

After posting some of his work on social media – he was inundated with requests. More than 700 came from a densely populated, spiral development 35 miles north of Sanibel called Rotonda West.

Bobby Quinn: This is Rotonda West. This is the neighborhood. And the pink dots you see are every single photo taken in the neighborhood.

To build his database, Quinn incorporated satellite images with ground-level images he took driving street by street.

Bill Whitaker: So that—the huge circle that we saw, you went down every cul-de-sac, going up and down and taking pictures on both sides of the street?

Bobby Quinn: Every way. Every house.

Bill Whitaker: How long did it take you?

Bobby Quinn: It took me nine hours. 117 miles.

Bill Whitaker: And how many pictures did you end up with?

Bobby Quinn: Just over 8,000.

He filmed inside some houses.

Quinn’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed, he told us he’s been contacted by an insurance company and the Florida Emergency Operations Center seeking his data.

Bill Whitaker: Why did you do that?

Bobby Quinn: If you’ve ever felt hopelessness or despair or the anxiety that comes with the unknown, you know it’s a terrible feeling. We know that we can use technology in a way that really hasn’t been used before to reach the right audience, to reach loved ones and family members. We want to alleviate that anxiety for them.

Bill Whitaker and Syd Kitson

A prescription for that may lie 12 miles northeast of hard-hit Fort Myers. Babcock Ranch is the brainchild of environmentally conscious developer and former professional football player, Syd Kitson.

Syd Kitson: So when you look at this building, it just went through a Cat-4 hurricane.

Kitson and his partners bought 91,000 acres in 2006 — larger than Manhattan — with a dream to build America’s first eco-friendly, hurricane-proof, fully sustainable small town.

Syd Kitson: We are the first solar-powered city in America. We have a solar field of 150 megawatts. But that’s just part of the story.

Bill Whitaker: How many people live here now?

Syd Kitson: About 5,000 people. And you know, in the end–

Bill Whitaker: And what do you plan to grow into?

Syd Kitson: About 50,000 people.

Kitson rode out the storm at his lakeside home in town.

Syd Kitson: And I remember sitting here. I was wearing the weather. And the weather person says, “Well, this category four hurricane is now headed toward Babcock Ranch.” And not only is it headed for Babcock Ranch, but it will be on the east side of the wall, which is the worst place to be.

Bill Whitaker: How long did the hurricane sit over you–

Syd Kitson: It was about eight to ten hours.

He took video with his iPhone. At the height of the storm there were whitecaps on the lake.

Syd Kitson: So as soon as the sun came up the next morning, I jumped in my car and started driving out. And the only damage was a few downed trees and a few shingles from the roofs.

Bill Whitaker: Is that it?

Syd Kitson: It was. And then maybe our recovery was one day?

Babcock Ranch

Babcock Ranch was designed to accommodate the Florida ecosystem with native plants and natural waterways for drainage; it was built 25 to 30 feet above sea level to avoid storm surges. All electricity and telephone lines are buried.

Bill Whitaker: Aren’t you just lucky that you happen to be at a higher level than most of the parts of Florida that were washed away?

Syd Kitson: Yes, I think that’s important, but not when it comes to the wind and– and flooding and rain. And then if that infrastructure isn’t built properly, you’re going to have homes that get flooded. You want that wind damage.

No one here lost power. Syd Kitson took us to see this massive solar cell.

Syd Kitson: What you see is 440 acres.

700,000 panels, built by Florida Power and Light. They resisted Ian’s brutal violence.

Syd Kitson: There is a lot of water, but you don’t see a single panel that has come loose. And there was quite a bit of wind coming through here the last few days.

Bill Whitaker: Gusts of 150 or more.

Syd Kitson: Gusts over 150 and it didn’t take a single panel off here, which is really just remarkable.

After seeing the devastation on Sanibel Island, it felt strange to see children playing in parks here, people enjoying themselves, eating at waterfront restaurants. As neighboring communities grapple with the aftermath of Ian, the deadliest hurricane since Katrina.

Produced by Graham Messick and Marc Lieberman. Associate Producers, Cassidy McDonald, LaCrai Mitchell and Jack Weingart. Broadcast staff, Natalie Breitkopf and Eliza Costas. Edited by Craig Crawford.

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