Hurricane Ian has killed at least 17 people in the US – and officials are warning number of deaths will rise

Eyewitness: ‘This is like an A-bomb hit the place’

The barrier islands off the coast of southwest Florida bore the brunt of Hurricane Ian’s fury.

Sanibel Island used to be a picture-perfect holiday spot with its wide, white sand beaches and clear waters.

The rich and famous have houses on the waterfront, alongside families who have lived there for generations.

On Wednesday afternoon, a torrent of water whipped up by the storm tore through the island – barely leaving a building untouched, ruining homes and taking lives.

Parts of the causeway, which is the only road access to the island, were washed away. Boat is now the only way on or off Sanibel.

The Sanibel fire service have borrowed a boat used for pleasure cruises and are using it to rescue people stranded on the island.

When they reach the jetty, a dozen survivors are waiting. They all have their own story to tell of Wednesday afternoon when Ian made landfall.

“The water started coming in and within five minutes the water was 3m (9ft) in the house and I was up on third floor,” says Marylou Holler, who has lived on Sanibel for seven years.

“I sheltered in a closet until part of the roof came off then the wind came in there so I just went behind a bed and stayed there. I know we’re lucky to be alive. I will never, ever, ever not evacuate again.”

Gregory Anerino clambers aboard the boat with three cat carriers.

“I’ve lived on Sanibel 35 years – seven hurricanes I’ve been through – and it’s never been like this,” he says.

“This is like an A-bomb hit this place. I was in Vietnam in 1968/69 and this is what it reminds me of. First it took off my roof, then it took off my upper staircase, and the only thing I have left now is my two bedrooms in the back and I had my cats in the bedrooms with me. That’s it, I have nothing else.”

As the boat pulls up to the port on the mainland, family members are waiting to see their rescued relatives. The mayor of Sanibel, Holly Smith, is there to greet them, crossing names off a sheet as they arrive.

“People are calling me all the time and people who are walking off this boat, their families are waiting for this news,” she says. “It’s not going to be a short-term recovery, it’s going to be a long-term recovery. This island is loved around the world and I know the strength of who we are and what we’re doing. We will rebuild.”

It’s been a short journey back to the mainland from Sanibel, but for many it represents the before and the after. They don’t know when, or if, they’ll ever return home.

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