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When flooding from Ian trapped one Florida town, an airboat navy came to the rescue

DeSoto County Commissioner J.C. Deriso turns his airboat around before heading out to help hurricane survivors stranded on newly-created islands brought on by the flooding Peace River.
Quil Lawrence
/
NPR
DeSoto County Commissioner J.C. Deriso turns his airboat around before heading out to help hurricane survivors stranded on newly-created islands brought on by the flooding Peace River.

ARCADIA, Fla. — The devastation from the storm surge was 50 miles away on the coast, so Ana Aguilar thought she was fine. Still, she and her family passed the night a few miles away from home in the town of Arcadia, and then went back to look at their house on the other side of the Peace River the next day.

"Thursday afternoon we came over here to check the house and then ... we couldn't leave," she says.

That's because Route 70, the road she drove in on, was swallowed by the floods brought on by Hurricane Ian. About 20 inches of rainfall, dumped here and inland by the slow moving storm, engorged the Peace River and another creek that cut her off to the road west to Sarasota. She was suddenly trapped on an island.

"We're fine compared to so many who lost everything," she said, three days later, "We just can't leave."

Thousands saw their homes flooded by Ian

About 2,000 homes were flooded by the river a full day after the storm had passed, according to Desoto County Commissioner J.C. Deriso, who spent several days helping rescue efforts.

"People we were saying the day after the storm — there were some people wanting to stay because they thought they were good, and the next day, they realized they needed to get out 'cause it was over their roofs," he said.

Residents of DeSoto County in Florida survived the initial storm only to find themselves stranded a day later by the flooding Peace River.
Quil Lawrence / NPR
/
NPR
Residents of DeSoto County in Florida survived the initial storm only to find themselves stranded a day later by the flooding Peace River.

Deriso and a small navy of volunteers ferried food and water across the flooded highway in air-boats: shallow skiffs propelled by giant fans. They took sick and injured people back from the newly formed island, where National Guard soldiers set up food and water distribution sites on the last stretches of highway still above water.

"Our community was pretty well-prepared for the storm and high winds, but the flood was pretty unexpected. They're saying it's really close to a 500-year flood," said Deriso. His airboat zipped over the yellow line in the middle of the highway, visible through several feet of rushing water. Mobile homes floated in an RV park across from a Sunoco station with water pouring over the tops of the gas pumps.

Virginia Hatcher Washington is seen next to the car she was sleeping in after Hurricane Ian tore through Arcadia, Fla. The Peace River was still flooding local highways several days after Ian.
Quil Lawrence / NPR
/
NPR
Virginia Hatcher Washington is seen next to the car she was sleeping in after Hurricane Ian tore through Arcadia, Fla. The Peace River was still flooding local highways several days after Ian.

Locals are pulling together and hoping politicians can do the same

In Arcadia, the floods and downed trees destroyed Victoria Hatcher Washington's house. She, her husband and her 75-year-old mother survived the storm and floods, but in the chaos she lost her money and credit cards.

"We just don't have anything right now," she said, standing outside a food tent set up by a local charity. She's been sleeping in her car, which is somehow still running, even though there's mud on the roof and the windshield from where the water washed over it.

"My brother-in-law bought me a $5 gallon [gas can]. And then my son had two or three gallons in his car. So that, I'm riding on that," she said. The same son, she said with pride, is out on a boat helping rescue people from the floods.

This past Sunday, Governor Ron DeSantis visited Arcadia. County commissioner Deriso said he was grateful, and was looking forward to President Biden's Wednesday visit to Florida, and hoped to see the two rival politicians work together, like the volunteers here in this town.

"That would be impressive to me, you know? I really like to see politicians from both sides of the aisle work together. It doesn't happen that often, but it gives me a lot of heart when I see it happen and I think it could happen here," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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