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Southwest Florida residents from Naples to Chokoloskee went to bed Sunday to an avalanche of rain and wind, the sound of trees cracking, windows shattering, metal bending and twisting. They did not know if they would wake up to their homes still standing — or even if they would wake up at all.
The eye of Hurricane Irma made a direct hit on Marco Island, a resort paradise south of Naples, and by the time it barreled up the coast toward Tampa, it left a scar on nearly every home, on nearly every block.
Irma made landfall on the island about 3:30 p.m. Sunday with wind gusts of 130 miles per hour, officials said at a news conference at City Hall Monday. The storm surge, however, was less than what was feared, and there was no loss of life, and only minor injuries, officials said.
The bridge to the island was open by 10 a.m. Monday.
“We were the little engine that did it,” said Mike Murphy, Marco Island’s fire chief.
Most of the island’s estimated 17,000 residents evacuated to shelters, but about 3,000 to 5,000 stayed, he said. During peak season, the Gulf Coast island’s population is much larger.
As the winds hit the island, and the water rose, and trees uprooted, rescue crews were called — but by then it was too dangerous for firefighters to venture out.
“San Marco Road looked like a river,” said Police Chief Al Schettino, who was on the road about 2 a.m. driving in four feet of water.
One of those who stayed was Zack Forrest and his roommate, who rode out the storm in their apartment. He said he expected it to be worse.
“It was not a nuclear hurricane,” Forrest told CNN. “But it was a badass hurricane.”
“The people who stay, they place not only their lives in jeopardy, but also our lives in jeopardy. We want to go out and get them but we can’t,” Murphy said.
One family of seven were trapped in their home for hours, with the water rising, and Murphy held them on the phone during the storm, trying to keep them calm until crews could finally reach them.
“Had those seven people lost their lives, we would have carried that home with us,” he said.
There was three to four feet of storm surge, and as water began pouring into homes and garages, many people then tried to flee — but it was too late.
“There were two other people trapped in a vehicle, and the storm surge was rising,” Schettino said.
Nearly every roof on the island was damaged, and what the wind didn’t harm, the downed trees did.
“People are going to come back to their homes and they are going to want to repair their homes and then we will have injuries,” said Murphy, who was chief in the city of Miramar during Hurricane Andrew.
Power to Marco Island’s two substations was restored Monday, and officials were hopeful that power would return to portions of the island by Tuesday.
Schettino, recalling that Monday was the anniversary of 9/11, said they were lucky.
“Having remembered 9/11 today, we know how grateful we were on the island that we were spared,” he said. “We were getting predictions that we were going to have 10 to 15 feet of storm surge, and winds and tremendous damage.”
“We were really fortunate,” he said.
“This island comes together as a community.”