PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) — Rescue teams piloted boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to save thousands of Floridians trapped amid flooded homes and shattered buildings left behind by Hurricane Ian, which swept through the Atlantic Ocean and headed for South Carolina.
Hours after weakening to a tropical storm as it crossed the Florida peninsula, Ian regained hurricane strength Thursday evening over the Atlantic. The National Hurricane Center predicted it would hit South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane on Friday.
The devastation inflicted on Florida came a day after Ian hit as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest storms to ever hit the United States. It flooded homes on both coasts of the state, cut off the only road access to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out power to 2.67 million homes and businesses. businesses in Florida, accounting for almost a quarter of utility customers.
Four people have been confirmed dead in Florida. They included two residents of hard-hit Sanibel Island along Florida’s west coast, Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza said late Thursday. Three other people were reported killed in Cuba after the hurricane hit on Tuesday.
In the Fort Myers area, houses had been torn from their flagstones and laid among jagged debris. Businesses near the beach were completely razed, leaving twisted debris. Broken docks floated at odd angles next to damaged boats and fires smoldered over land where homes once stood.
“I don’t know how anyone could have survived in there,” said William Goodison amid the wreckage of the mobile home park in Fort Myers Beach where he had lived for 11 years. Goodison weathered the storm at her son’s home inland.
The hurricane tore through the park of about 60 homes, many of which were destroyed or mutilated beyond repair, including Goodison’s home. Wading through waist-deep water, Goodison and his son rolled two trash cans containing what little he could salvage – a portable air conditioner, tools and a baseball bat.
The road leading to Fort Myers was littered with broken trees, boat trailers and other debris. Cars were left abandoned on the road, having stalled when the storm surge flooded their engines.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at least 700 rescues, mostly by air, have been carried out so far and involved the US Coast Guard, National Guard and city search and rescue teams.
After leaving Florida as a tropical storm on Thursday and entering the Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Canaveral, Ian again strengthened into a hurricane with winds of 75 mph (120 km/h).
A hurricane warning was issued for the South Carolina coast and extended to Cape Fear on the southeast coast of North Carolina. With tropical storm-force winds reaching about 415 miles (665 kilometers) from its center, Ian was expected to bring a 5-foot (1.5-meter) storm surge to coastal areas of Georgia and the Carolinas. Rainfall of up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) threatened flooding from South Carolina to Virginia.
National Guard troops were positioned in South Carolina to help deal with the aftermath, including water rescues. On Thursday afternoon, a steady stream of vehicles left Charleston, a 350-year-old city.
Southwest Florida sheriffs said 911 centers were inundated with thousands of blocked 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 federal city lifeguards were also in the area.
In the Orlando area, Orange County firefighters used boats to reach residents of a flooded neighborhood. Patients from a nursing home were carried on stretchers through floodwaters to a bus.
In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours holding a dining table against the patio door, fearing the storm “would tear our house apart”.
“I was terrified,” Bartley said. “What we heard was shingles and debris from the whole neighborhood hitting our house.”
The storm ripped patio screens and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but left the roof intact and his family unharmed.
Long lines formed at Fort Myers gas stations and a Home Depot hardware store opened, letting in a few customers at a time.
Frank Pino was near the back of the line, with about 100 people ahead of him.
“I hope they leave something,” Pino said, “because I need almost everything.”
A 72-year-old Deltona man died after falling into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the pouring rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. A 38-year-old Lake County man died Wednesday in a crash after his vehicle hydroplaned, authorities said.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office was struggling to respond to thousands of 911 calls in the Fort Myers area, but many roads and bridges were impassable.
Emergency crews sawed down fallen trees to reach stranded people. Many in the hardest hit areas were unable to call for help due to power and cellphone outages.
A piece of the Sanibel causeway fell into the sea, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people live.
No deaths or injuries have been confirmed in the surrounding county, and flyovers of the barrier islands show “home integrity is much better than expected,” county emergency management director Patrick Fuller said. .
South of Sanibel Island, Naples’ historic waterfront pier was destroyed, even the piles were ripped out. “At this time, there is no pier,” said Penny Taylor, commissioner for Collier County.
In Port Charlotte, a hospital emergency room was flooded and high winds ripped off part of the roof, sending water gushing into the intensive care unit. The sickest patients — some on ventilators — were crowded into the middle two floors as staff prepared for the arrival of storm victims, said Dr. Birgit Bodine of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital.
Ian battered Florida with 150mph (241kph) winds that tied it for the fifth strongest hurricane to ever hit the United States
While scientists generally avoid blaming climate change for specific storms without detailed analysis, Ian’s watery destruction matches what scientists predicted for a warmer world: stronger and wetter hurricanes, but not necessarily more numerous.
“This case of very, very heavy rain is something we expected to see because of climate change,” said MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel. “We will see more storms like Ian.”
Associated Press contributors include Terry Spencer and Tim Reynolds in Fort Myers; Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington; and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York.