Flooding strands Florida residents as Ian takes aim at Carolinas
Emergency crews on helicopters and boats raced on Thursday to reach stranded residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast after Hurricane Ian left behind deadly floodwaters, downed power lines and widespread damage.
Ian, one of the strongest storms ever to hit the U.S. mainland, flooded Gulf Coast communities before plowing across the peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean, where it was expected to recoup some of its depleted power before making a second landfall in South Carolina on Friday.
The extent of deaths and injuries remained uncertain, as rescue workers were only starting to respond to calls after not being able to go out sooner during the treacherous conditions.
President Joe Biden, speaking at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, said Ian could prove to be the deadliest in Florida history.
“The numbers are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life,” Biden said.
More than 2.6 million homes and businesses in Florida remained without power, according to utility companies. Governor Ron DeSantis said that Lee and Charlotte counties, home to more than 900,000 people, were “basically off the grid.”
Ian blasted ashore at the barrier island of Cayo Costa on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 km per hour).
The storm transformed Florida’s southwestern shoreline, dotted with sandy beaches, coastal towns and mobile home parks, into a disaster zone as Ian swept seawater into waterfront homes.
“Sanibel Island is destruction … it got hit with really biblical storm surge. It washed away roads. It washed away structures,” DeSantis said during a news briefing as he described the damage sustained by the popular vacation destination.
DeSantis said earlier that 28 helicopters were performing water rescues and that the bridge to the island was impassable.
“There have been a number of people identified and brought off the island safely, and those efforts are ongoing,” he said.
Two area hospitals were evacuated, with patients moved to higher ground.
By midday on Thursday, residents in hard-hit areas like Venice, located in Sarasota County about 75 miles (120 km) south of Tampa, hunted for family and friends while rescue crews worked to reach people trapped in flooded homes.
Kurt Hoffman, sheriff of Sarasota County, told residents in a Twitter post that there were more than 500 calls for help.
“Sit tight, we know many of you need help,” Hoffman wrote.
The search for loved ones was made more difficult as cellphone services were often cut.
“A lot of down trees, a lot of flooding everywhere. We are trying to get a hold of my daughter,” said Terri Byrd in a vehicle in a Walmart parking lot trying to get cell service after spending the night at an elementary school in Venice.
Across the region, officials and residents spent the morning assessing the damage.
In Punta Gorda, a town directly in the hurricane’s path, trees, debris and power lines covered roadways, though many buildings remained standing, having withstood the storm’s onslaught better than many had feared.
“It was insane,” local landscaper Jeffrey Chambers, 53, said, noting the storm brought sideways rains and white out conditions. “I was like ‘Please stop already, just stop.’ And it kept going and going.”
In the Orlando area, some 170 miles northeast from where Ian made landfall, emergency workers waded through waist-deep water carrying residents and pets to dry land, video clips on Twitter showed.
Ian, now a tropical storm, slackened as it trekked across Florida but was still producing strong winds, heavy rains and storm surge, including in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
German automaker Mercedes Benz (MBGn.DE), U.S. planemaker Boeing Co (BA.N), and the seaports that support manufacturers will suspend operations in South Carolina on Friday due to the potential impact of Ian.
The storm, packing maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph), was about 40 miles (65 km) northeast of Cape Canaveral, the Miami-based forecaster said, and was expected to regain hurricane strength by Friday evening. Up to 30 inches (76 cm) of rain was forecast to fall on parts of central Florida, the hurricane center said.
Biden spoke to DeSantis on Thursday, saying his administration was committed to close coordination and that Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Deanne Criswell will be in Florida on Friday. Biden said that he will travel to the state when conditions allow.
Biden also approved a disaster declaration, making federal resources available to the counties impacted by the storm.