Emergency crews on helicopters and boats raced on Thursday to reach stranded Florida residents after Hurricane Ian cut a coast-to-coast path of destruction across the state, leaving 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 and knocked out power to millions before plowing across the peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean, where it was expected to recoup some of its depleted power ahead of making another landfall in South Carolina on Friday.
The death toll remained uncertain amid scattered reports of casualties.
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.
In hard-hit Charlotte County, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department confirmed multiple deaths but did not have a firm figure. Authorities in Sarasota County were investigating two possible storm-related deaths, a sheriff’s spokesperson said.
A 72-year-old man in Deltona in central Florida died after he went outside during the storm to drain his pool, authorities said.
More than 2.6 million homes and businesses in Florida remained without power. 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.
He 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, as she tried to get cell service in a Walmart parking lot after spending the night at a Venice elementary school.
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, describing sideways rain that erased all visibility. “I was like ‘Please stop already, just stop.’ And it kept going and going.”
Brenda Siettas, 62, a paraprofessional who works with students, was in the city in 2004 when Hurricane Charley blasted much of her neighborhood away. Buildings constructed since then are more able to withstand hurricane-strength winds, she said.
“They definitely built back much better since Charley,” she said. “Back then I stayed here for two weeks: no power, no water, no sewer.”
Ian weakened to a tropical storm 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.
Mercedes Benz, Boeing Co, and the seaports that support manufacturers will suspend operations in South Carolina on Friday.
The storm, packing maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph), was about 40 miles (65 km) northeast of Cape Canaveral as of 2 p.m. ET (1800 GMT), the Miami-based forecaster said, and was expected to regain hurricane strength by Friday evening.
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.