Michael Murphy Michael Murphy (left) and Gary Murphy (right)
Gary Murphy has lived in Fort Myers since he was 18 years old. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, his town is unrecognizable.
"It is a war zone," he tells PEOPLE. "It's just a war zone."
The 74-year-old and his wife live on 10-mile canal in South Fort Myers. The couple evacuated to Fort Lauderdale just hours before the Category 4 storm hit Wednesday, but they went back for a few hours Thursday to survey the damage and reconnect with their son Michael, who'd stayed behind with his family. The younger Murphy had a harrowing night rescuing dozens of his neighbors.
"I told people before I left to get out," says Gary, who followed Lee County's mandatory evacuation order, "but Michael stayed because he has a two-story home."
As a result of their risky decision, Michael and his family were forced up to their second story when the water started rising. Around 8 p.m. Wednesday, the 50-year-old realized his was the only two-story house in the neighborhood — and people nearby might be in danger.
His father-in-law, Roy Johnson, a commercial fisherman who owns a boat, was riding out the storm with them. The two men got his Carolina Skiff and began steering it through the neighborhood, the streets now more like an extension of the canal they live on.
"When the water started coming up, first they rescued a lady next door who has a child with special needs," says Gary. "She lives two doors down. They realized she was there and just went and got them. The water was so high that any house that was a single-story house was under water."
Joe Raedle/Getty Hurricane Ian damage in Fort Myers Beach
Michael and his father-in-law brought the woman, named Patsy, and her grandson over to their house as the water continued to rise.
"I know Patsy wouldn't have survived if we hadn't been there," says Michael, who realized more of his neighbors were likely in danger and started going door to door in the boat.
"Most of the people were getting ready to go into their attic, that's all they could do," says Michael. "Some people swam over to our house using their pool noodles."
"There was about 8 ft. of water in the neighborhood. They all live on the canal. That's why they got so much flooding," Gary explains.
Gary says Michael and Roy "would pound on the door until people could hear them," leading to the rescue of 29 people and several dogs and cats.
"He picked them up and brought them to his house," says Gary. "His house was the only safe one. Five doors down there was a house on fire. It was an electrical fire and it burned the house to the ground."
Michael's son Hunter, 27, went along for some of the rescues — and it's a good thing. At one point when they were trying to get to some trapped neighbors, part of a roof started to crumble. On instinct, Hunter reached up to stop it, preventing it from crashing into his father.
Gary tells PEOPLE, "The roof would have crushed him in the head and Hunter was able to deflect it with his arm. We took him to the hospital today, and it isn't broken, but he has a bad bruise."
Once the water started receding, Michael and his father-in-law then found a way to get everyone out of the neighborhood.
"After the storm, water went down a little," says Gary. "There's no cars, all their cars are under water, so he took the boat and went to his place of business, Marina Mikes, and he got a flatbed truck and a wrecker that was tall and was able to go down the road."
The neighbors are now all in temporary housing — most with friends and family.
Gary says Michael is still figuring out where he'll be staying. Though he's proud of his son, he bristles at the word "hero."
"Michael and his father-in-law had the means to do it," says Gary. "Nobody else had a boat."
RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Hurricane Ian damage in Cayo Costa, Florida, located west of Fort Myers
Hurricane Ian made landfall as an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 150 mph on Wednesday just after 3 p.m. local time, near Cayo Costa, Fla., according to the National Hurricane Center.
By Thursday morning, more than 2.5 million people in Florida were without power as a result of the widespread devastation caused by the storm, which snapped apart trees, leveled homes and tore down power lines across the coastline.
RELATED VIDEO: Hurricane Ian Is Described as a '500-Year Flooding Event'
Storm surges reached nearly 7 ft. high in areas like Fort Myers, while 12 ft. water levels were recorded in Naples.
"We've never seen storm surge of this magnitude," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Friday. "The amount of water that's been rising, and will likely continue to rise today even as the storm is passing, is basically a 500-year flooding event."
At least 67 people in Florida were killed, CNN reported Sunday, citing officials. Thousands more were unaccounted for.
President Joe Biden said Ian "could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida's history" during an address from FEMA headquarters on Thursday.
"The numbers we have are still unclear, but we're hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life," the president added. "We know many families are hurting. Many, many, are hurting today."
Ian made its third landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 storm on Friday afternoon. At least four deaths have been reported in North Carolina as a result of storm-related events.