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The death toll was rising and thousand 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 described the storm as “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.”
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said on CNN that at least five deaths have been confirmed in his county, which includes Fort Myers. 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.
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 early Thursday.
Ian had weakened to a tropical storm but was forecast to continue roaring across the state most of the day before heading out into the Atlantic. The storm flooded entire communities, leaving residents stranded in their homes after making landfall Wednesda 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 still searching for more than 20 Cuban migrants after their boat sank in stormy weather near the Florida Keys.
► 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, know for great waffles and always being open, said 35 outlets were shut down due the storm as of Thursday morning.
► Residents described the terror after a tornado tore through a condominium complex near Delray Beach, 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.
GET TEXT UPDATES: Sign up here for text updates on Hurricane Ian.
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.
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. She 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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
Emergency crews sawed through toppled trees to reach people in flooded homes. “If the line is busy, keep trying,” Marceno said in a Facebook post Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis downplayed Marceno’s numbers, saying “none of that is confirmed.”
“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,” DeSantis said.
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.
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.”
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