TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Dozens of people have reportedly been confirmed dead in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian’s path through Florida, while officials in South Carolina are just beginning to assess the devastation Ian brought to the state.
Many of the deaths were drownings, including that of a 68-year-old woman swept away into the ocean by a wave. A 67-year-old man who was waiting to be rescued died after falling into rising water inside his home, authorities said.
Other storm-related fatalities included a 22-year-old woman who died after an ATV rollover from a road washout and a 71-year-old man who fell off a roof while putting up rain shutters. An 80-year-old woman and a 94-year-old man who relied on oxygen machines also died after the equipment stopped working during power outages. And a 72-year-old man died after going outside during the storm to drain his pool, WESH reported.
Local authorities had confirmed 27 deaths in Florida by Saturday morning, the Associated Press reported. Sheriff Carmine Marceno of Lee County confirmed additional deaths later in the day, estimating “about 35” in Lee County alone, though it wasn’t immediately clear if all the deaths were storm-related.
Another three people died in Cuba earlier in the week as the storm churned northward. The death toll was expected to increase substantially once emergency officials have an opportunity to search many of the hardest-hit areas.
Rescue crews piloted boats and waded through riverine streets in Florida after the storm to save thousands of people trapped amid flooded homes and shattered buildings.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that crews had gone door-to-door to over 3,000 homes in the hardest-hit areas.
Ian weakened to a tropical storm after making landfall near Cayo Costa, Florida, on Wednesday afternoon, bringing powerful Category 4 hurricane-strength winds, rain, and surge to the doorsteps of millions. Many coastal communities remained under several inches of floodwater on Thursday and many more were left without electricity.
Hours after weakening to a tropical storm while crossing the Florida peninsula, Ian regained strength Thursday evening over the Atlantic. The National Hurricane Center predicted it would hit South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane Friday, still much weaker than the Category 4 hurricane it was on Wednesday.
Authorities throughout southwest Florida hit the road on Thursday in communities battered by the massive Hurricane Ian to assess damage, clear debris and respond to calls for help as millions of Floridians remain sheltered in place.
“The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that was done has been historic,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a press briefing on Thursday morning.
Hurricane Ian has likely caused “well over $100 billion’’ in damage, including $63 billion in privately insured losses, according to the disaster modeling firm Karen Clark & Company, which regularly issues flash catastrophe estimates. If those numbers are borne out, that would make Ian at least the fourth costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said first responders have focused so far on “hasty” searches, aimed at emergency rescues and initial assessments, which will be followed by two additional waves of searches. Initial responders who come across possible remains are leaving them without confirming, he said Friday, describing as an example the case of a submerged home.
“The water was up over the rooftop, right, but we had a Coast Guard rescue swimmer swim down into it and he could identify that it appeared to be human remains. We do not know exactly how many,” Guthrie said.
Desperate to locate and rescue their loved ones, social media users shared phone numbers, addresses and photos of their family members and friends online for anyone who can check on them.
Orlando residents returned to flooded homes Friday, rolling up their pants to wade through muddy, knee-high water in their streets. Friends of Ramon Rodriguez dropped off ice, bottled water and hot coffee at the entrance to his subdivision, where 10 of the 50 homes were flooded and the road looked like a lake. He had no power or food at his house, and his car was trapped by the water.
“There’s water everywhere,” Rodriguez said. “The situation here is pretty bad.”
The devastating storm surge destroyed many older homes on the barrier island of Sanibel, Florida, and gouged crevices into its sand dunes. Taller condominium buildings were intact but with the bottom floor blown out. Trees and utility poles were strewn everywhere.
Municipal rescuers, private teams and the Coast Guard used boats and helicopters Friday to evacuate residents who stayed for the storm and then were cut off from the mainland when a causeway collapsed. Volunteers who went to the island on personal watercraft helped escort an elderly couple to an area where Coast Guard rescuers took them aboard a helicopter.
“Please do not rush outside and think you can travel the roads,” said Andy Fossa, director of Pasco County Emergency Management. “There is going to be debris, downed powerlines and structural damage to some structures.”
Fossa said if residents must go outside, they were urged to use extreme caution before venturing out.
“A lot of injuries and fatalities happen post-storm because of these kinds of actions,” Fossa added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.