Telling stories of Hurricane Ian's victims and survivors: A reporter's notebook from Florida

In the devastation, locals saw surprising rescues; others worried for relatives.

October 3, 2022, 1:44 PM

Miles Cohen is one of seven ABC News reporters embedded in battleground states ahead of the November midterm elections; he's based in Florida.

Last week, however, his political assignments were put on pause as Hurricane Ian approached.

Below, Cohen recounts his days before, during and after the deadly storm -- from the tiny details of hunkering down in Miami to the striking stories he captured from Floridians. See more of Cohen's work with the embed team and anchor George Stephanopoulos on Hulu's "Power Trip."

Monday and Tuesday: Stocking up

Around 9:45 p.m., I was in my apartment in downtown Miami when I started to hear thunder. I looked out the window and saw a flash of lightning. Although Ian was forecasted to miss my area -- ultimately, the hurricane hit the Fort Myers area on the other side of the tip of Florida -- the outer ring of the storm had begun to batter Miami.

I had no supplies for what was coming, and there were only 15 minutes until my neighborhood Publix was set to close.

I threw my flip-flops on -- I hadn't brought any rain gear to Miami when I relocated for the election season -- and then ran out of the door. I trudged through about a foot of water to cross the street to the grocery store where I bought a platter of Cubanito sandwiches, a 12-pack of sparkling water and a bag of apples (and a bottle of wine).

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Power Trip

"Power Trip" follows 7 young reporters as they chase down candidates in the lead up to the midterms with George Stephanopoulos guiding them along the way.

PHOTO: A drain bursts, while an outer ring of Hurricane Ian moved over the area on Sept. 26, 2022 in Miami.
A drain bursts, while an outer ring of Hurricane Ian moved over the area on Sept. 26, 2022 in Miami.
ABC News

On Tuesday, as Ian drew closer, I continued to prepare. I got in my car, filled up my gas tank and then headed out: first to Dick's Sporting Goods for a raincoat and then to Target for some questionable rain boots.

I ate all 12 of my Cubanitos as I watched Gov. Ron DeSantis give press conferences telling thousands of Floridians to evacuate.

Wednesday: Landfall

On Wednesday afternoon, Ian made landfall 150 miles west of me in Fort Myers Beach. The hurricane, which had been predicted to bring severe winds and flooding to Florida, put a pause on any political news.

Instead, I hunkered down inside my apartment and began to cover the unfolding disaster. I scanned social media and started reaching out to those who said they were in Ian's way. I spoke with Joe Orlandini, a resident in Fort Myers who did not evacuate. His street had turned into a canal, he said, and a house that had been uprooted floated by him while we were on the phone. I got him to call into ABC News Live to tell his story.

I also spoke with Earl Dunnigan, a 69-year-old man trapped in his trailer in Fort Myers Beach. The water had risen up to his chest while we were on the phone, he said. "I can't swim so I'm just hoping for the best," he told me.

PHOTO: Hurricane rations Miles picked up from Publix grocery store.
Hurricane rations Miles picked up from Publix grocery store.
ABC News

I spoke to the daughter of Pam Stomczewski, 71, who lives in the same mobile home park as Dunnigan. Stomczewski's daughter, Jayme Rybka, lives in Chicago and was worried sick about her.

Stomczewski had placed her two small dogs on a couch cushion that served as a raft.

Into the night, relatives shared with me the last words they had exchanged with their friends and family in Ian's path.

"I love you," Paula Sheldon's daughter, Michele Murphy, texted her. Murphy lives in Pine Island, which had also been hit hard by the hurricane. She had stayed put because she could not leave her many animals behind.

Sheldon told me her daughter's message was wrenching: "'I love you' sounded like 'goodbye.'"

PHOTO: Sue Lepisto hugs her neighbor after they saw each other while visiting their homes, which were flooded by six feet of water, following Hurricane Ian, Sept. 30, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla.
Sue Lepisto hugs her neighbor after they saw each other while visiting their homes, which were flooded by six feet of water, following Hurricane Ian, Sept. 30, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Thursday: Search and rescue

By Thursday morning, some relatives had reached their loved ones.

I woke up to a text from Stomczewski's daughter, who said it was a miracle -- she had been rescued. Nick Smith, a family friend, had driven his Jeep through dangerous waters and pulled her out of her home. Her dogs were also safe.

"We just started screaming her name and she started screaming back," Smith told me by phone. "We got in there and saved her man."

PHOTO: Joe Orlandini, a Fort Meyers Beach, Fla. resident whose neighborhood incurred severe damage, calls into ABC News Live.
Joe Orlandini, a Fort Meyers Beach, Fla. resident whose neighborhood incurred severe damage, calls into ABC News Live.
ABC News

Others had not been as lucky.

Sheldon said she still did not have any word from her daughter in Pine Island. She considered driving 80 miles south from Ocala to see if she could find her.

By Monday, Florida officials would confirm that more than 90 people had died in the state though search-and-rescue work was ongoing.

Friday: Other problems emerge

As emergency responders continued working in Fort Myers' Lee County, one of the hardest hit areas of Florida, I made a call to the county's election supervisor, Tommy Doyle. I asked him if he thought they could begin sending out mail-in ballots by their Oct. 6 deadline.

Doyle, who took my call from his son's flooded Fort Myers home, said they were going to try.

PHOTO: Pam Stomczewski, who lives with her dogs in Fort Meyers Beach, Fla., narrowly survived Hurricane Ian.
Pam Stomczewski, who lives with her dogs in Fort Meyers Beach, Fla., narrowly survived Hurricane Ian.
Nick Smith

"Unfortunately, we got to think about voting. A lot of people aren't thinking about that right now," Doyle said. "They're dealing with personal issues, trying to salvage their life."

"I have to put my gears in high gear and get it done," he added. "And that's what we'll do."

Saturday: Some good news

Paula Sheldon finally heard from her daughter. Sheldon was overjoyed that Murphy and her five dogs had made it through the storm. Murphy is still without power and everyday provisions, Sheldon told me, but at least she knows Murphy is OK.

On Saturday night, Dunnigan, who had been stuck in his mobile home in Fort Myers, wrote on Facebook that he was OK, too. "I've lost everything," he wrote, before adding, "I'm alive and very thankful because it was close to not being that way."

"Power Trip" releases new episodes on Sundays on Hulu.

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