Maureen and Rich Vath
Maureen and Rich Vath watched the floodwaters rise inside their Sanibel, Florida, home as Hurricane Ian passed over the island when it made its first U.S. landfall Wednesday as an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 150 mph.
At one point, the couple tells PEOPLE, their piano was floating inside their house. On Thursday, as the downgraded storm moved on, the Vaths were unable to leave by car because both their vehicles were totaled by the storm while parked inside their garage.
Ian destroyed portions of Sanibel Causeway — a series of bridges that connect the island to the Florida mainland — so they couldn't reach to their boat either. Maureen, 76, and Rich, 77, tried to use their bikes to find help, but the muddy terrain made riding impossible.
No rescue workers came down their street. After waiting another day, the couple decided Friday to walk four miles to safety.
Maureen and Rich Vath
Despite their nightmare, the Vaths, who are now staying in Estero, Fla., can't wait to rebuild and go back home to Sanibel. "It's paradise," says Maureen, who adds that the hurricane, which has killed at least 76 people, will only make her community stronger.
"We all know each other better now and we're all helping each other," she says. "It's brought out the best in everyone that I can see."
The Vaths moved to Sanibel about four years ago. They decided not to evacuate before Hurricane Ian because they had a whole house generator. During another storm in 2018, the Vaths' house became a shelter for others who lived nearby.
"The whole neighborhood came to our house because it was safe," Maureen says. "We had power."
But when the storm surge caused by Ian submerged their generator in water, the couple grabbed food, drinks, flashlights and their rain boots and hunkered down on the second floor of their home.
Maureen and Rich Vath
"We watched the water come up and come up," Maureen says. She and her husband counted the steps as the water crept up the stairs, reaching a halfway point at the seventh.
"The wind was horrific," Maureen tells PEOPLE. "All of our royal palm trees are now just sticks."
When they were able to go downstairs, the Vaths saw that all their belongings were coated in mud.
"Everything was falling apart," Maureen says of the "pure devastation." Even her kitchen cabinets were peeling. "The water was so strong and there was so much of it, things had time to kind of just rot right in the water," she explains.
They had no cell service and Maureen says the community's fire trucks had been taken off the island so they knew they would have to save themselves.
"No one came down our street or any street near us, so we had to go to them," Maureen says. "That's what we figured out the second night."
Maureen and Rich put their wallets, toothbrushes, electronics and a change of clothes into a plastic bag and set off wearing rain boots to walk four miles to the wharf. They climbed over fallen trees and stopped to rest on abandoned beach chairs. The couple celebrated when they found a broken cart. With their belongings inside, they pushed it and continued their journey.
"It was just so scary," Maureen says.
Rich spoke to another survivor after he'd rescued his mother, who uses a wheelchair and has impaired vision, and his frightened dog from the floodwaters.
"I almost had tears in my eyes for what he was telling me what he went through," Rich says.
The couple traveled by pontoon boat to Port Sanibel Marina on the mainland in Fort Meyers before making their way to Estero.
The Vaths said Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith met them "with open arms" at the marina, where volunteers helped the couple make calls and friends cooked them food and offered them a place to stay.
"There's so many people helping us," Maureen says. "There were firemen charging our phones. They rescued every animal."
The Vaths have no interest in moving, they tell PEOPLE. They expect it will take a year before they can get return to their Sanibel home.
"We're going back because it's paradise," Maureen says. "It's just heaven."
Joe Raedle/Getty Hurricane Ian damage in Fort Myers Beach
Ian made its second U.S. 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.
"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."
As the death toll continues to rise, thousands were unaccounted for in the storm's wake.
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."