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As it makes its way north from Florida, Hurricane Ian has left a trail of devastation in its wake, the full extent of which was not yet clear to officials on Thursday.
There has been one confirmed fatality so far, in Volusia County. The county sheriff said a 72-year-old man died overnight after going outside to drain his pool during the storm.
At a press conference Thursday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis said state officials know of two fatalities, which they assume are linked to the hurricane, but they’re not yet sure.
Earlier that day, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno painted a far graver picture of the human toll.
“While I don’t have confirmed numbers, I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds,” he told Good Morning America. “There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued.”
DeSantis, however, later said that those numbers were not confirmed.
“I think what that is, is there were 911 calls for people saying, ‘Hey, the water is rising in my home. I’m going to go up in the attic, but I’m really worried.'”
FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN that many communities along Florida’s west coast were hit hard by Hurricane Ian, with Lee County, in the southwest, emerging as the area sustaining the most damage.
“We know that there was significant storm surge there. We know that their water system has been impacted, and we’re focused right now on getting some search and rescue teams, who have been out since 4 this morning, to get into that area and identify who might need assistance, who might need to get rescued,” Criswell said.
Across Florida, people were trapped in flooded homes, waiting for rescue teams to arrive. Parts of the Sanibel Causeway were obliterated by the storm, cutting off the Sanibel and Captiva barrier islands from the mainland.
But officials warned that the entire state is still at risk, even in areas where Ian did not make landfall.
“I want to emphasize the storm still poses a major threat to the state, including central Florida right now and northeast Florida,” Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said at a press conference Thursday morning.
DeSantis said the storm has “broad impacts across the state,” causing flooding in areas “hundreds of miles” from landfall.
“Right now if you look in central Florida, you’re looking at potential major flooding in Orange and Seminole counties, St. Johns River, all the way up potentially into northeast Florida into Jacksonville,” he said. “The amount of water that’s been rising and will likely continue to rise today even as the storm is passing, is basically a 500-year flood event.”
Hospitals and medical facilities in several counties evacuated patients after being hit by Ian, the Associated Press reported.
Videos on social media show severe flooding and widespread damage across the state, with entire neighborhoods leveled.
President Joe Biden formally declared a major disaster in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas, and Sarasota counties on Thursday, which allows federal funds to go towards helping residents there. DeSantis said he will likely request a federal disaster declaration in other counties as the scope of the damage becomes clearer.
The US Coast Guard began rescue missions on the barrier islands early on Thursday after the hurricane passed, DeSantis said. Rescue officials are also conducting operations in places with the most inland flooding.
More than 2.6 million customers were without power in Florida by noon on Thursday, according to a national power outage tracker.
DeSantis said that Lee and Charlotte counties “are basically off the grid at this point.” Power infrastructures in those two counties would likely have to be rebuilt to get them back on the grid, he said.
At a FEMA briefing on Thursday, Biden talked about the devastation that the hurricane has wrought on Florida so far.
“Some of the folks have been through this before, but that doesn’t make it any easier, it actually makes the anxiety even higher in my view,” he said. “My message to the people of Florida and to the country: At times like this, America comes together.”
On Thursday morning, Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm as it travels up north but is expected to regain hurricane intensity as it makes landfall in South Carolina. But by 5 p.m. Eastern Time, Ian had become a hurricane again as sustained winds increased to almost 75 mph.
Hurricane-force winds are expected to begin battering the coast of South Carolina early Friday, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.
“There is a danger of life-threatening storm surge through Friday along the coasts of northeast Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina,” the agency said.
According to the advisory, Ian could slightly strengthen before landfall tomorrow but will rapidly weaken over the southeastern states late Friday and early Saturday.
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