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What the devastation in Florida looks like from above

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Southwest Florida continues to bear the brunt of the damage from Hurricane Ian. The area near Fort Myers was especially hard hit. And officials say it could take days or longer to get a real understanding of the extent of the damage. But it is clear that the devastation is far reaching, something that is easier to understand from the air. And that is exactly where reporter Eileen Kelley from member station WGCU is right now, in a helicopter over southwest Florida. Hello up there.

EILEEN KELLEY, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, Eileen, can you just first describe for us what are you seeing right now?

KELLEY: I am seeing absolute devastation, particularly Fort Myers Beach. It really does look like a bomb exploded. It's unbelievable. I've covered a lot of hurricanes, and this one is really hitting home because I'd lived here for 10 years. Yeah, Fort Myers Beach, the wonderful place that you drive over the bridge and see all these great honky-tonk stores and - they're all gone. Everything that made Fort Myers Beach such a special, little, quirky, little barrier island is gone. The homes that have tin roofs seemed to have done their jobs, homes that are newer built. But the old character of Fort Myers Beach, you know, it's wiped away. What's absolutely terrifying is the color of the water. It's black.

CHANG: It's black?

KELLEY: And you can see off in the distance where it's green, the color that it should be. And this - it's clear that there is - it's polluted with gasoline...

CHANG: Yeah.

KELLEY: ...You know, and the oil from the boats. The boats are just stacked up on top of each other, almost like throw dice on a table. They're on land. They're upside down. I just - I'm really kind of taken back by the - how it really does look like houses exploded.

CHANG: It must be heartbreaking to see all this knowing what it used to look like.

KELLEY: It's incredibly heartbreaking because Southwest Florida is truly a gem. I mean, it was filled with so much wildlife. I - you know, I don't know if there's even a bird that's going to be alive here. I've been talking to people, and they're saying that they're gone, that there's - you don't even hear a bird chirping anymore. You know, half of Sanibel was a wildlife refuge - the largest one, J.N. "Ding" Darling. And it was wonderful because they couldn't develop. And, you know, Sanibel was only a 16-square-mile island, but the people were pioneers that were here. And the people that are here now are going to have to be because the causeway is gone. You know, the causeway was built in 1963, and before that, the old pioneers would have to take a ferry back and forth to the island.

CHANG: What an eerie...

KELLEY: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Image - a return to the days of being a pioneer again because the causeway is gone. Let me ask you, Eileen, you - as a reporter, you've been hearing from officials talk about the damage, the extent of it. But now because you're up in the sky, you're seeing the expanse yourself. Can you just give us a sense of the scale of the damage from your perspective now?

KELLEY: You know, I would venture that half of Fort Myers Beach is gone at least - at least half. The newer buildings, the high rises, they're - some of them are - they're still standing. Not all of them have roofs though. But all of the small cottages that really made this just like a - it's almost - Fort Myers Beach isn't just for wealthy people, you know? It was everybody's beach - old salty shrimpers and, you know. It was - that's what was so remarkable. Like, everyone came here to play, and you could afford it. And those homes are all gone. Like, just - it looks like matchsticks down there.

It's - I just had a family reunion on the beach in July, and this is - it's really hard to see. Sanibel fared much better than Fort Myers Beach. Perhaps that's because there's newer buildings. You know, in the decades that I lived on Sanibel in the '90s, there were a lot of first floor cottages. But, you know, they're pretty strict on their guidelines for building. But it is - it's - I couldn't stop crying as we headed over Sanibel.

CHANG: I'm so sorry. That is reporter Eileen Kelley from member station WGCU in a helicopter above southwest Florida. Thank you so much, Eileen, for joining us from the sky today.

KELLEY: Oh, no. Thank you for this opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eileen Kelley
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