Homes and infrastructure were torn apart by catastrophic winds and major storm surges swept through southwestern Florida on Wednesday as Ian made landfall centered just north of Fort Meyers. Potentially record-breaking rainfall also caused severe flooding elsewhere in the state.
President Joe Biden has declared Florida under a state of “major disaster,” opening up federal funding to people affected by the storm in nine counties.
More than 2.5 million customers across Florida are without electricity, as of writing. In inland regions or areas that didn’t face the worst of the storm, grid repairs are already underway, but restoring power will be a longer process in some communities. “Charlotte and Lee county reconnects are really going to likely have to be re-buildings...that’s going to be more than just connecting a powerline back to a pole,” said Governor Ron DeSantis in a Thursday morning press conference.
Those two counties—which encompass multiple barrier island communities, including Sanibel Island, and the mainland cities of Fort Meyers, Cape Coral, Port Charlotte, and others—faced the brunt of the worst winds and storm surges. Debris-filled water rose multiple feet in many areas along the coast, in some cases fully submerging homes and buildings. People had to be rescued from rooftops, described DeSantis.
In one particularly harrowing example of the storm’s power, a Port Charlotte hospital simultaneously flooded and was torn apart. Water poured into the ground floor, inundating one emergency room level while vicious winds destroyed the fourth floor roof, exposing the intensive care unit. Hospital staff safely evacuated patients to the facility’s middle floors to await rescue, according to a report from the Associated Press.
The combination of winds and rushing floodwaters completely unmoored and destroyed some buildings, sending whole houses swimming. “The impacts of this storm are historic. The damage that has been done is historic,” said DeSantis—emphasizing that the full extent of the harm done to both lives and property is so far unknown. But the coming days are likely to reveal devastation, indicated local officials.
“We are beginning to get a sense that our community has been, in some respects, decimated,” Lee County manager, Roger DesJarlais said in a press conference.
So far, two deaths have been attributed to the storm in Florida, though the causes have yet to be confirmed, said DeSantis on Thursday. Earlier, the Lee County sheriff told Good Morning America that the death toll could be “in the hundreds,” however that estimate is unconfirmed and may be a large overstatement.
Asked about that rumored death toll, DeSantis said the Lee County sheriff’s evaluation followed thousands of 911 calls in which people frantically asked for help as water rose in their homes. The Governor said that he’s hopeful many of those people were able to access higher ground and escape the flooding.
Outside of Lee and Charlotte counties, Northport and parts of Sarasota incurred 4 to 5 feet of flooding, said DeSantis. And Orlando, in central Florida, experienced more than 16 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, constituting a “1,000-year” event, according to a report from Good Morning America.
Kevin Guthrie, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, explained that Central Florida continues to experience significant flooding in the same Thursday press conference with DeSantis. He added that the storm could bring further “damaging winds and extreme rainfall” across Central and Northeast Florida. Guthrie described “instant action water rise” occurring in waterways. Lakes in central Florida are “filling up and overflowing into the neighborhoods around them,” he said.
Dangerous additional flooding is a continuing risk for northeastern parts of the state, and now too for parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, according to the National Weather Service.
Ian has weakened to a tropical storm and is moving over water toward the Southeast coast, carrying maximum sustained winds of 70 mph, more heavy rainfall, and the threat of storm surges along the coast of between 1 and 7 feet. However, the storm is expected to re-intensify back into a hurricane as it travels over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the National Hurricane Center. All of coastal South Carolina is currently under a hurricane warning.