Some Floridians who ignored the state's evacuation orders and rode out Hurricane Ian at home are describing the "unbelievable" fury of the storm that authorities said has caused catastrophic damage, deaths and prompted a massive search-and-rescue effort Thursday.
In Fort Myers, a woman named Halle B. stood outside her wrecked and flooded home and told ABC News' chief meteorologist Ginger Zee about the terrifying ordeal she and her cat, Maui Maui, endured.
"I'm the stupidest woman. I'm from Florida. I went through (hurricanes) Andrew, Irma. I decided to stay. I did not know it was going to be a (Category) 4 ... and a tidal surge," Halle B. said.
She said she and her cat initially took shelter in her bathtub for three to four hours.
"And then the water just started coming into the front door and then it just exploded," she said, adding that her refrigerator floated away in the tidal surge from the Gulf of Mexico a little over a mile from her home.
She said that as the water got higher, she and her cat fled the bathtub and got onto her sleigh bed, which started to float.
"We floated on the bed up to the ceiling," Halle B. said. "We only had a foot of air left."
Just when she thought she was a goner, the water started to recede, she said. She said she yelled out for help and three rescuers came to her aid, carrying her out of harm's way.
She said she learned a valuable lesson and advised anyone who find themselves in a similar situation to "take heed when they say evacuate on tidal surges."
'The wind was crazy'
Max Doyle, who with his father, Kevin, co-owns the Celtic Ray Public House in Punta Gorda, told ABC News by phone Thursday morning that he, his wife and two children, ages 5 and 7, endured the hurricane in a closet of their home.
"We had everything we needed. We had pillows all around the place. The kids had the iPads. The kids barely knew what was going on the whole time," said Doyle.
But Doyle detailed that from time to time he couldn't help but leave the closet to witness the wrath of Ian. He said he didn't venture outdoors, but from a large window looking into his backyard he saw "things flying around."
Hurricane Ian first made landfall on a barrier island near Cayo Costa just after 3 p.m. on Wednesday, before making a second landfall just south of Punta Gorda as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds estimated at 145 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
"It was just a long storm. The wind was crazy. I was concerned at times but luckily our house is fairly new so we knew it was probably going to fair out pretty," he said.
On Thursday morning, Doyle stated that he drove into town to check out how his pub weathered the storm. In August 2004, Hurricane Charley, another Category 4 Hurricane made landfall at Punta Gorda and destroyed the tavern, ripping off its roof and blowing out all the doors and windows.
He said he and his father spent seven years rebuilding the bar, making sure all their renovations were above code and as hurricane-proof as possible, including installing a roof designed to withstand a major hurricane and high-impact doors and windows.
"The pub's not as bad as it was last time," Doyle said. "It's got some damage but nothing we can't get through."
He further stated that the tavern's glass balcony was shattered, the water heater was destroyed, a few fans were broken and a few shingles from the roof were missing.
Doyle said downtown Punta Gorda looks like a disaster zone.
"There's trees down everywhere. As far as I know, the whole town is without power and water," Doyle said. "There are a lot of big historic trees downtown and they're all down. It's kind of sad to imagine what it's going to look like after this."
'There's a house sitting in our front yard'
Debbie Levenson, a Fort Myers resident, takes hurricanes seriously, but she said she and her family tried to remain calm and did what they needed to do to survive the storm.
"You get your supplies, make sure you have flashlights [and] do your laundry ahead of time in case you lose power," Levenson told ABC News. "We bought bottled water and wine. We put gas in the car."
Levenson is one of the 2.5 million Florida customers who have lost power as Ian hammered the state.
Another Fort Myers resident, Joe Orlandini, who stayed put as Ian hit Florida, told ABC News' Gio Benitez "there's nothing left" as the situation worsened.
"It's unbelievable. There's a house sitting in our front yard, where we're at. It's stuck by a power pole," Orlandini said. He also revealed his car floated away.
Orlandini said he decided to ride out the storm because he thought it would move farther north.
'The damage has been historic'
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press briefing Thursday morning that search-and-rescue crews aboard 28 Chinook and Blackhawk military helicopters were performing evacuations of people trapped in their homes. He said the rescues began in the wee hours of the morning on the barrier islands.
DeSantis said that some people had taken refuge in attics and on roofs.
A dramatic rescue was caught on video in Lee County as the storm raged and flooded streets in Bonita Springs with waist-high water. Two men, one wearing a white cowboy hat, were filmed rescuing an elderly man stranded in his car in the rising floodwaters and presumably carrying him to higher ground.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that as of 2 p.m. Thursday, more than 500 people had been rescued in Charlotte and Lee counties. Additionally, U.S. Coast Guard air crews rescued seven people in separate rescue missions Wednesday night in the Fort Myers and Tampa Bay areas, Petty Officer Ayla Hudson told ABC News.
The Coast Guard also told ABC News a search was on for 20 Cuban migrants who went missing after their vessel sank during the storm near Stock Island, Florida.
The governor said authorities were working to restore power to several hospitals and said two healthcare facilities were being evacuated Thursday morning.
An ABC News crew witnessed firefighters rescuing 106 patients from a flooded nursing home in Orlando Thursday.
"It was ankle deep when I walked in, but within a short time it was up to my waist," an assistant fire chief told ABC News of the water level in the nursing home's hallways.
DeSantis confirmed that 2.5 million people were without power across Florida Thursday and said Lee and Charlotte counties "are off the grid at this point."
"It's not about reconnecting lines in those counties, but rebuilding them," DeSantis said.
Bridges to Sanibel Island and Pine Island were closed due to damage and will likely require rebuilding, DeSantis said, adding that other bridges were being inspected for stability.
DeSantis said Thursday afternoon that Sanibel Island was hit by a "really biblical storm surge" that caused massive destruction.
"The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that was done has been historic. And this is just off initial assessments," DeSantis said.
DeSantis explained the flooding is widespread across southeast Florida and up through central Florida. At one point, the streets of Fort Myers were swamped with four feet of water, authorities said.
"I think we've never seen a flood event like this, we've never seen a storm surge of this magnitude, and it hit an area where there's a lot of people in a lot of those low-lying areas. And it's going to end up doing extensive damage to a lot of people's homes."
He said there is no confirmed number of fatalities at this time. But during a news conference at FEMA headquarters in Washington, President Joe Biden said, "This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida's history."
"Numbers are still unclear, but we're hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life," Biden said.
Seven people have been officially confirmed dead, including six in Charlotte County, officials said Thursday afternoon. A 72-year-old man was killed when he went outside his home in Deltona in the storm to attempt to drain his swimming pool, according to the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.
DeSantis warned that the remnants of Ian are still wreaking havoc, saying, "This thing is not done creating damage. This thing is going to continue to move."
Ian regained Category 1 strength early Thursday evening, with winds at 75 mph as it heads toward South Carolina.
Denise Hudson, who lives in Coral Gables, told ABC News that she was ready for the worst, as she hunkered down at home as Hurricane Ian hit her town.
"We have one part of the house that's hurricane safe and the rest of the house we have boarded up," Hudson said.
Heavy winds caused debris to fly near Hudson's home and even knocked down a palm tree in her backyard.
ABC News' Morgan Korn, Mark Osborne and Gio Benitez contributed to this report.