Rescue crews piloted boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to save thousands of Floridians trapped after Hurricane Ian destroyed homes and businesses and left millions in the dark.
The destruction began to come into focus a day after Ian made landfall in Florida as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. The storm flooded homes on both of the state’s coasts, cut off the only bridge to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out electricity to 2.67 million Florida homes and businesses, nearly a quarter of utility customers. At least one man was confirmed dead.
“We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told a news conference. “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.”
Though downgraded to a tropical storm by Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center said storm surge and flooding rains remained a threat as Ian crept across the Florida peninsula and emerged in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Canaveral. Forecasters predicted Ian would regain some strength while turning northward.
A hurricane warning was issued for the South Carolina coast, where the storm was expected to again make landfall, having already hit Cuba and Florida.
Sheriffs in southwest Florida said 911 centers were inundated by thousands of stranded callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. The U.S. Coast Guard began rescue efforts hours before daybreak on barrier islands near where Ian struck, DeSantis said. More than 800 members of federal urban search-and-rescue teams were also in the area.
In the Orlando area, Orange County firefighters used boats to reach people in a flooded neighborhood. A photo the department posted on Twitter showed one firefighter carrying someone in his arms through knee-deep water. At an area nursing home, patients were carried on stretchers across floodwaters to a waiting bus.
Firefighters on boats and National Guard soldiers in a tall truck rescued Joseph Agboona and his neighbors after water rose to the windows at his Orlando home.
“We were happy to get out,” said Agboona, who grabbed two bags of possessions, not knowing what will be left when he eventually returns. “It was very, very bad.”
In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours Wednesday holding a dining room table against their patio door, fearing the storm raging outside “was tearing our house apart.”
“I was terrified,” Bartley said. “What we heard was the shingles and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house.”
She said her 4-year-old daughter grabbed her hand and said: “I’m scared too, but it’s going to be OK.” The girl was right. The storm ripped away patio screens and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but left the roof intact and her family unharmed.
Authorities confirmed at least one Florida death — a 72-year-old man in Deltona who fell into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. Two other storm deaths were reported in Cuba.
Hurricane Ian left a path of destruction in southwest Florida, trapping people in flooded homes, cutting off the only bridge to a barrier island, destroying a historic waterfront pier and knocking out power to 2.5 million people as it dumped rain over a huge area Thursday.
One of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. threatened catastrophic flooding around the state. Ian’s tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 415 miles, drenching much of Florida and the southeastern Atlantic coast.
“It crushed us,” Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He said roads and bridges remained impassable, stranding thousands in the county where Ian made landfall just north of Fort Myers. “We still cannot access many of the people that are in need.”
Marceno said that, while he lacked any details, he believed the death toll would be “in the hundreds.” DeSantis later said that toll was not confirmed and was likely an estimate based on 911 calls.
President Biden formally issued a disaster declaration Thursday, and Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the agency was supporting search-and-rescue efforts. The U.S. Coast Guard also began rescues on southwest Florida’s barrier islands early Thursday, as soon as winds died down, DeSantis said.
“The Coast Guard had people who were in their attics and got saved off their rooftops,” DeSantis said. “We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude. … 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.”
A chunk of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the sea, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people normally live. How many heeded mandatory evacuation orders was impossible to know in the storm’s immediate aftermath.
South of Sanibel, the historic beachfront pier in Naples was destroyed, with even the pilings underneath torn out, as towering waves crashed over the structure. “Right now, there is no pier,” said Penny Taylor, a commissioner in Collier County, which includes Naples.
Emergency crews sawed through toppled trees to reach people in flooded homes, but with no electricity and virtually no cellphone service, it was impossible for many people to call for help from the hardest-hit coastal areas where the surge came in.
“Portable towers are on the way for cell service. Chances are your loved ones do not have ability to contact you,” said the sheriff’s office in Collier County, which includes Naples. “We can tell you as daylight reveals the aftermath, it’s going to be a hard day.”
Hurricane Ian turned streets into rivers and blew down trees as it slammed into southwest Florida on Wednesday with 150 mph winds, pushing a wall of storm surge. Ian’s strength at landfall was Category 4 and, measured by wind speed, was tied for fifth among the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the United States.
Ian’s center came ashore more than 100 miles south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
The National Hurricane Center said Ian became a tropical storm over land early Thursday and was expected to regain near-hurricane strength after emerging over Atlantic waters near the Kennedy Space Center later in the day, with South Carolina in its sights for a second U.S. landfall.
Meanwhile, a stretch of the state remained under as much as 10 feet of water Thursday morning, with destructive waves “ongoing along the southwest Florida coastline from Englewood to Bonita Beach, including Charlotte Harbor,” the center said.
In Port Charlotte, along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm surge flooded a lower-level emergency room in a hospital as fierce winds ripped away part of the roof from its intensive care unit, according to a doctor who works there.
Water gushed down onto the ICU, forcing staff to evacuate the hospital’s sickest patients — some of whom were on ventilators — to other floors, said Dr. Birgit Bodine of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital.
Law enforcement officials in nearby Fort Myers received calls from people trapped in flooded homes or from worried relatives. Pleas were also posted on social media sites, some with video showing debris-covered water sloshing toward homes’ eaves.
The Florida Highway Patrol shut down the Florida Turnpike in the Orlando area because of significant flooding and said the main artery in the middle of the state would remain closed until water subsides.
Brittany Hailer, a journalist in Pittsburgh, contacted rescuers about her mother, whose North Fort Myers home was swamped by 5 feet of water.
“We don’t know when the water’s going to go down. We don’t know how they’re going to leave — their cars are totaled,” Hailer said. “Her only way out is on a boat.”
A boat carrying Cuban migrants sank Wednesday in stormy weather east of Key West.
The U.S. Coast Guard initiated a search-and-rescue mission for 23 people and managed to find three survivors about two miles south of the Florida Keys, officials said. Four other Cubans swam to Stock Island, just east of Key West, the U.S. Border Patrol said. Air crews continued to search for possibly 20 remaining migrants.
The storm previously tore into Cuba, killing two people and bringing down the country’s electrical grid.
More than 2.5 million Florida homes and businesses were left without electricity, according to the PowerOutage.us site. Nearly every home and business in three counties was without power.
Sheriff Bill Prummell of Charlotte County, just north of Fort Myers, announced a curfew between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. “for life-saving purposes,” saying violators could face second-degree misdemeanor charges.
“I am enacting this curfew as a means of protecting the people and property of Charlotte County,” Prummell said.
At 8 a.m. EDT Thursday, the storm was about 40 miles east of Orlando and 10 miles southwest of Cape Canaveral, carrying maximum sustained winds of 65 mph and moving toward the cape at 8 mph, the Miami-based hurricane center said.
Up to a foot of rain is forecast for parts of northeast Florida, coastal Georgia and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. As much as six inches could fall in southern Virginia as the storm moves inland over the Carolinas, and the center said landslides were possible in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia all preemptively declared states of emergency.