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The death toll was rising and thousands of residents desperately sought rescue Thursday as historically powerful Hurricane Ian, now a tropical storm, hammered Florida with heavy rain and strong winds, one of the strongest systems in U.S. history.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the storm caused a “500-year flooding event” and said Coast Guard helicopters were plucking trapped residents from the roofs of homes. Communities across the state were or will be swamped by the overwhelming waters, he said.
“The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that has been done is historic,” DeSantis said. “We’ve never seen a flood event like this, we’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude.”
At least 13 people were reported dead in counties across the state, a number that’s expected to rise drastically. Sheriffs in southwest Florida said 911 centers were inundated by thousands of stranded callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. More than 2.6 million Florida homes and business were without power Thursday.
Ian had weakened to a tropical storm and headed out to the Atlantic Thursday but its outer bands were still buffeting the state. It’s forecast to head back toward the U.S., hitting South Carolina Friday. The storm flooded entire communities, leaving residents stranded in their homes after making landfall Wednesday with 150-mph maximum sustained winds – just 7 mph shy of a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale.
The storm previously tore into Cuba, killing two people and bringing down the entire country’s electrical grid.
►The U.S. Coast Guard was searching for a group of more than 20 Cuban migrants after their boat sank in stormy weather near the Florida Keys. A U.S. Border Patrol agent tweeted that nine have been rescued and that the search for the rest continues.
►Ian’s strength at landfall tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane when measured by wind speed to strike the U.S. It’s tied with five other hurricanes that reached 150 mph — two in Florida, two in Louisiana and one in Texas.
►Waffle House, known for always being open, said 35 outlets were shut down due to the storm as of Thursday morning.
►Residents described the terror after a tornado tore through a condominium complex near Delray Beach on the Atlantic side of South Florida, ripping off roofs and turning over vehicles. “I felt things blow past my head and face,” resident Jim Travis said. “When I opened the door, my apartment was destroyed.” Read more.
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HURRICANE IAN TRACKER: Where is Ian headed? See the map.
IAN FORECAST: Ian likely to spend days dumping rain on Florida. Here’s the outlook.
At least 13 deaths confirmed in Florida, toll expected to grow
The destruction and upheaval left behind by Ian has made it difficult to get an accurate assessment of the loss of life, but there are already early reports of 13 deaths, and more are expected.
Charlotte County Commissioner Chris Constance told CNN Thursday afternoon there have been six confirmed fatalities in the county, which is just north of Fort Myers.
Also speaking to CNN, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said at least six deaths have been confirmed in his county, which includes Cayo Costa — the island near Cape Coral where the storm made landfall Wednesday.
And a 72-year-old man in Deltona, about 30 miles northeast of Orlando, died after falling into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said.
Constance said four shelters in his county had to be evacuated because of structural damage, and many roads were impassable because of downed power lines or flooding.
“It is the biggest catastrophe I have ever seen in my lifetime,” said Constance, speaking from Broward County in South Florida, where he traveled ahead of the storm. “This is unprecedented and I was in Punta Gorda through Hurricane Charley (in 2004). While that was devastating, this is so much bigger, is affecting so many more people.”
Biden: Ian could be ‘deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history’
President Joe Biden said Thursday that Ian could be the “deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history,” vowing the federal government will provide assistance “however long it takes” to ensure a full recovery.
“The numbers are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life,” Biden said after he was briefed on FEMA’s disaster response at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.
At least 13 people were reported dead in counties across the state, though Florida officials have not provided an official death total from the storm. It wasn’t clear on what Biden based his estimate on the loss of life. The 1928 Okeechobee hurricane killed up to 2,500 in Florida. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 killed 43 people.
“We know many families are hurting today, and our entire country hurts with them.” Biden said. “My message to the people of Florida and to the country is that at times like these America comes together.”
The president said he offered Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “the fullest federal support” in a phone conversation Thursday morning and told Florida mayors to “call me directly” if they need help.
– Joey Garrison
Ian expected to regain strength, make landfall in South Carolina
Like a villain in a horror movie, Ian is poised to come back and wreak havoc just when it seemed to go away.
Once a Category 4 hurricane, Tropical Storm Ian moved Thursday off the coast of Florida and into the Atlantic Ocean, where the warm water is reenergizing it. Ian is predicted to regain hurricane strength — meaning it will bring winds of at least 74 mph — and make landfall once again, this time Friday in South Carolina.
Hurricane and storm surge warnings have been issued for the South Carolina coast because of Ian’s predicted approach, the National Hurricane Center said.
Forecast call for a storm surge of several feet and flooding in low areas along the coast, like Charleston, where Mayor John Tecklenburg warned residents: “Take this storm seriously. Tomorrow, stay home and stay out of harm’s way.”
– Doyle Rice
Ian the ‘ultimate villain’ at Disney World; parks to start reopening Friday
While Disney World was closed to guests Thursday as Ian swept across central Florida, some who were already staying at the park’s resorts weathered the storm with limited staff and upset children.
Jan Tuckwood, who splits time between Lake Worth, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, said Disney’s Swan Reserve hotel felt like the Twilight Zone to her and her family.
“Disney World is as you would imagine it to be if an incredible amount of children have been pent up for two days and basically had their hopes dashed by the ultimate villain, Hurricane Ian,” she said.
During the storm, water started leaking into their hotel room on the 14th floor and they were relocated to another room, she said.
Disney officials said the parks were being assessed for damage Thursday and operations would resume in a phased approach Friday.
– Suzy Fleming Leonard, Florida Today
Erosion-control rocks tossed by high surf
In Flagler Beach, county emergency officials reported damage to the end of the pier as a result of the high and pounding surf, the National Weather Service in Jacksonville said, adding that public reports indicated the surf was tossing erosion-control rocks over the beachside highway State Road A1A.
At Pellicer Creek near Marineland, the tide gauge reached a height of 4 feet over the high-water mark, which represents major flooding of the Intracoastal Waterway, as a result of storm surge. A Weatherstem camera showed flooding of the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience.
— Dinah Pulver
Ian as viewed through a peephole in North Port
Elizabeth Hayes watched the entirety of Hurricane Ian pass over her home in North Port, 50 miles northwest of Fort Myers, through a peephole in her shutters. The longtime resident says she was not prepared for the devastating flooding – and she knows more floodwater is on its way.
Heyes said only the roof of her shed in the yard is above water. North Port residents are using small boats, kayaks and paddle boards to inspect homes that flooded along the Myakkahatchee Creek on Thursday morning.
“We’ve seen it flood, we’ve boated in and out before, but this is devastating,” Hayes said.
Airports closed, flights canceled
Most Florida airports remain closed Thursday and numerous flights are canceled. Airports that are open are dealing with delays as well as cancellations.
Nearly 2,000 U.S. flights were canceled Thursday, and the highest numbers were across Florida, according to Flight Aware, which tracks flight status in real time. Travel through parts of Georgia and the Carolinas was also impacted as the storm moved north. Tampa International Airport officials tweeted that damage assessments were underway.
“We are closely coordinating our reopening with the FAA, TSA, airlines, and other partners based on roadway safety, facility readiness, and required staffing,” the post said. “We hope to have an update on reopening plans later today.”
– Eve Chen, USA TODAY
Section of Sanibel Causeway crashes into sea
A section of the Sanibel Causeway collapsed into San Carlos Bay, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people normally live. A mandatory evacuation order had been issued for the island ahead of the storm but it was not clear how many people had stayed behind.
DeSantis said Thursday morning that more than 100 engineers in pairs of two will work to assess the bridges along the west coast of Florida.
Biden issues disaster declaration
President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration to make federal funding available to affected residents in the Florida counties of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas, and Sarasota. DeSantis said he would ask that the declaration be expanded as more counties report crippling damage from Ian.
Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help residents and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster. Federal funding also is available for debris removal.
Biden said his administration was “continuing to take swift action to help the families of Florida. … I want the people of Florida to know that we will be here at every step of the way.”
St. Petersburg dodged worst of Ian
After thousands of people evacuated earlier this week, preparing for life-threatening storm surge, residents in St. Petersburg awoke Thursday to minimal damage.
Police directed traffic at intersections with broken traffic lights. Some trees had fallen, blocking roadways and taking down power lines. In Coquina Key, an island community south of downtown, a Norfolk Island pine had snapped in half, its branches scattered in a yard. Nearby, Dale Fredrick used a chainsaw to cut branches of another downed tree blocking a roadway.
“It won’t take long,” Fredrick, 58, said. “Just little by little.”
Hurricane Ian tracker
As now Tropical Storm Ian continues to move across Florida on Thursday, USA TODAY’s Hurricane Ian tracker will remain updated and offer the latest look at where the storm is headed.
Lee County sheriff fears ‘hundreds’ could be dead but DeSantis says nothing ‘confirme
The hurricane’s center made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane Wednesday afternoon near Cayo Costa, a barrier island just west of heavily populated Fort Myers in Lee County.
“While I don’t have confirmed numbers, I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds,” Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” “There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued.”
Pressed on the numbers, Marceno said “so far confirmed in the hundreds. Meaning that we are responding to events, drownings. Again, unsure of the exact details because we are just starting to scratch the surface on this assessment.”
Gov. DeSantis attempted to downplay the sheriff’s assessment, telling ABC’s Good Morning America those numbers weren’t verified.
“None of that is confirmed,” DeSantis said at a morning briefing at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “What that is, there were 911 calls from people in their homes saying, ‘hey, the water is rising. I’m going to go up in the attic. But I’m really worried.’”
“Of course, those folks now are going to be checked on,” DeSantis said. “ I think you’ll have more clarity about that in the next day or so, as (rescuers) are able to go to those locations and determine whether people need services.”
More than 2.6 million Floridians without power
More than 2.5 million homes and businesses across Florida were without power early Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us. Most of the homes and businesses in 12 counties were without power, although authorities said they were making progress, that power had been restored to 500,000.
DeSantis said the power grids in Lee and Charlotte counties will likely have to be rebuilt.
“Lee and Charlotte are basically off the grid at this point,” DeSantis said. “That’s going to be more than just connecting a power line back to a pole,” he said.
Southeast braces as Ian advances
Meteorologists with the National Hurricane Center said Ian will roll off of Florida’s east coast, turn northwest and might strengthen to hurricane status again before making landfall again in South Carolina. The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia all preemptively declared states of emergency.
“State agencies are working together and preparing for Hurricane Ian’s potential impact,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said on Twitter. “Each South Carolinian should do the same – take the time now to make a plan for every contingency.”
Hospital roof partially torn off, fire station flooded: Damage in Florida
Parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast saw major damage as Hurricane Ian swept through the state, damaging buildings and homes and flooding communities.
Water coursed through the streets of Naples, creating giant waves that made roads impassable and flooded the city’s fire department. A video posted by Naples Fire-Rescue showed crews working to salvage equipment and firetrucks in more than 3 feet of water. In Cape Coral, about 30 miles up the coast, photos showed a sailboat washed up in the middle of a road near homes.
Nearby Fort Myers saw intense storm surge flooding coastal communities and the area around WINK News, a local CBS affiliate. Videos showed water reaching car windshields in the studio’s parking lot and some of the storm surge leaking into the building.
Farther north along the coast, intense storm surge flooded a hospital’s lower level emergency room in Port Charlotte, while fierce winds ripped away part of the roof from its intensive care unit, according to a doctor who works there.
WHAT IS STORM SURGE?Explaining a hurricane’s deadliest and most destructive threat
Water gushed down from above 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. Staff members used towels and plastic bins to try to mop up the sodden mess.
Officials warned flash floods were possible across the state, which could lead to pollution and radioactive waste overflow.
SAFFIR-SIMPSON WIND SPEED SCALE:Breaking down wind speed scale for hurricanes.
HOW DOES HURRICANE IAN COMPARE:Category 5 hurricanes are rare. Is Ian’s punch the worst U.S. has seen?
Contributing: Kate Cimini, USA Today Network-Florida; Jesus Medoza and Kathryn Varn, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Associated Press