VENICE, Florida – Battling rising floodwaters on boat and horseback, rescuers plucked stranded residents from their homes and herded cattle to higher ground as the Myakka River overflowed its banks Saturday.

Locals and rescuers, long familiar with how hurricanes push water into their neighborhoods, said Hurricane Ian drove unusually high flooding, which came three days after the storm’s passage.

The heavy storm surge was exacerbated by hours of pounding rainfall in Central Florida – leading to deep inland flooding. Several longtime residents blamed new developments for destroying historic floodplains able to soak up the water.

“We’re used to flooding, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jennifer Stringer, 50, a high school teacher who has lived alongside the river since 2011. “All that water has no place to go.”

The high waters forced a nearly 24-hour closure of Interstate 75 over the river as engineers assessed the damage to bridge piers about seven miles inland from the coast. The closure caused massive traffic jams Friday night as returning evacuees struggled to get home.

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Stringer said when she left her house two days earlier, water was 6 inches below the front door of her stilt home. The water was significantly higher Saturday, and she worried what she’d find as she boarded a small boat to float down the road into her neighborhood.

‘Worst I’ve ever seen it here’

By Saturday afternoon, a flotilla of boats was buzzing around the neighborhood, from small fishing boats to kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

Bruce Phillips, 61, grimly climbed aboard a borrowed kayak to paddle to his longtime home off Border Road, near the Sleeping Turtles park. He and his family have lived there for 45 years, and he feared what he’d find.

Phillips evacuated his elderly mother before the storm arrived, and came back Saturday to check on the property. Phillips remembered minor flooding during previous storms and floating around on 55-gallon drums as a kid. Ian, he said, was different.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it here,” he said.

Most of the flooding took place inland of Venice, impacting several cattle and horse ranches, including Stepping Stones Farms, where volunteers swam eight horses out to dry land Saturday.