Rescue crews waded through flooded streets and used boats Thursday in a scramble to save people trapped after Hurricane Ian destroyed a cross-section of Florida, killing multiple people and bringing torrential rains that inundated communities.
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 U.S. 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.
"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."
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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 around daybreak on barrier islands near where the Ian struck, DeSantis said. Fire departments fanned out in flooded areas as well.
DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday evening in Tallahassee there had been 700 confirmed rescues across the state in the wake of the storm. "Some of the damage was almost indescribable,” he said.
Thursday evening, a spokesperson for the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office said they had at least two Ian-related fatalities.
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Another seven deaths were reported in Charlotte County, including six in the Punta Gorda area.
One death happened after a man died in Deltona in Volusia County after he walked out of his house to drain his pool early Thursday.
"The impacts of this storm are historic, and the damage that was done has been historic," DeSantis said. "We've never seen a flood event like this, we've never seen storm surge of this magnitude."
President Joe Biden said Thursday that the storm could end up as the “deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.”
During a visit to the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he was briefed on federal response efforts, the president said, “The numbers are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life.”
Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson told NBC’s “Today” that he had not been told of any deaths in the city, but Ian by far is the worst storm he's witnessed since the 1970s.
“Watching the water from my condo in the heart of downtown, watching that water rise and just flood out all the stores on the first floor, it was heartbreaking,” Anderson said.
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 in Cayo Costa, a barrier island just west of heavily populated Fort Myers, was Category 4, tying it for the fifth-strongest hurricane, when measured by wind speed, ever to strike the U.S.
More than 2 million Florida homes and businesses had been without electricity Thursday morning, DeSantis said. By Thursday afternoon, Florida Power & Light officials said more than 700,000 outages had been restored.
"Charlotte and Lee (county) reconnects are likely going to have to be rebuilds of that infrastructure," DeSantis said. "There are crews on their way down right now, but that's going to be more than just reconnecting a power line back to a pole."
In Fort Myers, a few miles west of the barrier island where Ian came ashore, 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.
DeSantis added that Alligator Alley from South Florida was open as was Interstate 75 into southwest Florida. Florida Department of Transportation crews are on the ground to make sure roadways are safe for travel.
Several bridges in southwest Florida suffered major damage in the storm.
A chunk of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the sea, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people normally live. It was unknown how many heeded orders to evacuate, but Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Patrick Fuller expressed cautious optimism that worst-case scenarios might not have been realized.
No deaths or injuries have been confirmed in the county, and flyovers of barrier islands show “the integrity of the homes is far better than we anticipated,” Fuller said.
DeSantis said the images from Sanibel were difficult to see, saying the area got hit with "really biblical storm surge."
In Port Charlotte, the storm surge flooded a hospital's emergency room even as fierce winds ripped away part of the roof from its intensive care unit, a doctor who works there told the Associated Press.
Water gushed down onto the ICU, forcing them to evacuate their sickest patients -- some on ventilators — to other floors, said Dr. Birgit Bodine of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital. Staff members used towels and plastic bins to try to mop up the sodden mess.
The medium-sized hospital spans four floors, but patients were forced into just two because of the damage. Bodine planned to spend the night there in case people injured from the storm arrive needing help.
“As long as our patients do OK and nobody ends up dying or having a bad outcome, that’s what matters," Bodine said.
Life-threatening storm surges and hurricane conditions were possible on Thursday and Friday along the coasts of northeast Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, where Ian was expected to move inland, dumping more rain well in from the coast, the hurricane center said.
Hundreds of thousands of Floridians had been given mandatory evacuation orders in anticipation of powerful storm surge, high winds and flooding rains from Ian.
Some chose to stay and ride it out including Rodney McDonald, who spent the night on a boat near Fort Myers. The 80-year-old McDonald said he'd survived five other storms on the small boat but the sixth was the one he'll remember.
"This one went all night and it was nasty," McDonald said.
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.
Sheriff Bull 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 may face second-degree misdemeanor charges.
“I am enacting this curfew as a means of protecting the people and property of Charlotte County,” Prummell said.
Pictures: ‘Catastrophic' Hurricane Ian Makes Landfall in Florida
DeSantis said more power outages were expected, and he urged people to prepare for extended outages. He said Florida will receive assistance from several states, including Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and New York.
DeSantis activated the state's National Guard ahead of the storm's expected impact this week. The governor's declaration frees up emergency protective funding to address potential damage from storm surge, flooding, dangerous winds and other weather conditions throughout the state.
Although South Florida didn't take a direct hit from Hurricane Ian, severe weather and flooding were expected throughout the area over the next couple days.
At least two people were hospitalized Tuesday night after a tornado barrelled through Delray Beach, but there were no serious injuries, officials said.
Over 30 people were evacuated from the Kings Point apartment complex after the tornado tore the roof off of the building, fire officials said.
There were overturned cars, large tree branches and trunks scattered about and portions of the building were gutted.
One person called 911 after the roof collapsed and left her stuck in a bathroom, Palm Beach Fire Rescue said. Firefighters were able to go in and rescue her.
In Hialeah, residents at Holiday Acres Mobile Home Park woke up to flooded streets Wednesday morning.
Resident Esmeralda Rodriguez said the water had already receded and the situation looked better than the night before. She’s lived in a mobile home since 1996 and said high water levels after a storm aren’t unusual in the area.
"I’m used to this … the water comes and goes," she said. "But thank God we are alive and that’s what matters most."
Hialeah Mayor Steve Bovo said mobile home park streets are private roads and are not under the city’s jurisdiction, creating a complicated scenario for residents.