Florida victims and survivors climb after Hurricane Ian hits the state

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Emergency crews and search teams deployed to floodplains in southwest Florida on Thursday, searching for survivors and the missing while only beginning to measure the massive the extent of the destruction caused the day before by one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the United States.

Over 2.3 Millions of Floridians were left without power on Thursday evening in an area where a three-pronged storm surge, fierce winds and downpours flooded roads, toppled boats, toppled unmoored homes from their foundations and destroyed at least two bridges to barrier islands.

Yet even as the Gulf Coast emerged from more than a day’s worth of appalling weather, Ian made it clear that it wasn’t over yet. Early Thursday , weakened by a tropical storm, it dumped record rain on what officials predicted would be a deadly and costly path across the peninsula. Then it moved offshore into the Atlantic, where it again strengthened into a hurricane. It is expected to hit South Carolina on Friday.

Flooding across a wide swath of Florida’s hard-hit coastal counties has made rescue missions slow and difficult, officials said, offering widely varying estimates of the death toll. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said Thursday morning that “hundreds” may have lost their lives in the wrath of Hurricane Ian, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm. Later, the governor of Florida Ron DeSantis (right) said two people had been confirmed dead and it was not yet clear if the storm was to blame. President Biden, who declared the state a major disaster area, warned of “substantial loss of life.”

US Coast Guard and Urban Search and Rescue teams, joined by 28 large helicopters, were carrying out “active rescue missions”, particularly near the barrier islands that surround Florida’s southwest coast, said DeSantis. Regardless of the casualties, he said, Ian’s damage seemed “historic” and his legacy immense.

“You’re looking at a storm that changed the character of a significant part of our state,” DeSantis said Thursday morning in Tallahassee. “It’s going to require not only emergency response now, and in the days or weeks to come, I mean, it’s going to require years of effort, to be able to rebuild, to come back.”

By mid-afternoon Thursday, more than 500 people had been rescued in Charlotte and Lee counties since operations began in the morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management said. DeSantis said Thursday night the total number had grown to more than 700.

Residents who witnessed the fury of the hurricane and its aftermath described terrifying scenes.

Bill D’Antuono, a charter boat captain, was at his aunt and uncle’s canal-side house in Naples Park when the water, he said, started to rise ‘very quickly’ . Ten minutes later, a foot of water had burst into the house. Eventually it rose above the kitchen counters. The three fled to the second floor.

On Thursday, the lifelong resident of Naples emerged in a city transformed, with boats on the roads, streets under water and houses filled with water. The historic Naples pier has been torn in some sections. D’Antuono, 36, said his home in the Bayshore area appeared to be flooded beyond repair.

“Everything we knew is different now,” he said.

D’Antuono was in an evacuation zone but did not leave, in part because an earlier predicted path for Ian had directed the storm towards Tampa, well north of his home. His family has emerged unscathed from many storms and scares in the past, he said. But Ian wasn’t like those other times.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I mean it’s just – it’s really a nightmare. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And it’s happened to everyone I know.

Away from the clubbed southwest coast, Ian was still making his mark, dumping 10 to 20 inches of rain over a wide belt of Florida. Orlando in central Florida set a 24-hour rainfall record with 12.49 inches through 8 a.m., about double its monthly average. On Wednesday night, nearly 17 inches of rain fell near town, where the storm had forced Walt Disney World to close. (The theme park was scheduled to reopen on Friday.)

On the Atlantic coast, 28 inches fell in New Smyrna Beach. In St. Augustine, about 30 miles south of Jacksonville, storm surge caused the Matanzas River to overflow, flooding downtown streets. The National Hurricane Center projected a peak surge of up to 4 to 6 feet in the area.

Several rivers were reaching or heading towards record levels. Because the ground was already saturated with rain, Ian’s downpours had an even greater effect, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the Tampa Bay office of the National Weather Service.

“The weather is getting better for the beaches, but the weather for people who live near rivers, they’re going to be hit for weeks by high water,” Davis said.

It was flowing Thursday for Raj Sukhraj, who was rescued in the morning with her dog from their home near a lake in West Orlando.

“I never thought it would be this bad,” said Sukhraj, 61, a former schoolteacher who has lived in her home for 10 years. “We went through Hurricane Irma, and it wasn’t anything like that. If I had known, I would have left before he arrived.

Sukhraj said she woke up in the middle of the night as Hurricane Ian, then a Category 1 storm, passed, and when she put her feet on the ground, the water in her bedroom swelled. covered his foot.

“And then it got this far,” she said, using her cane to measure the water rising up to her shins. “I looked out the window and saw the lifeguards across the street, so I opened the window and started screaming and knocking, and they came to get me, me and my baby.”

In South Carolina, the worst seemed yet to come. The Hurricane Center predicted a “deadly” surge of up to 4 to 7 feet along the Central Coast, including around Charleston, with hurricane-force winds expected to rake the South Carolina coastline Friday morning.

But an uncertain forecast meant it was possible Ian could become a Category 2 hurricane as it moves over warm Gulf Stream waters.

Flooding, both from dangerous storm surge and heavy rain, was also likely in and around Charleston, forecasters said. A “life-threatening” storm surge of 4 to 7 feet was possible in vulnerable areas, and a flood watch was posted with 4 to 8 inches of rain likely, with higher localized amounts. There was also an isolated risk of a tornado or two.

In addition to storm surge and hurricane warnings for South Carolina, tropical storm and storm surge watches and warnings covered much of the coasts of North Carolina, Georgia and of central and northern Florida.

Back in southwest Florida, locals struggled to understand what had become of their laid-back region of white-sand beaches.

Survivors scoop up scattered Hurricane Ian debris at the base of the bridge leading to Fort Myers Beach – huge tourist and shrimp boats washed ashore, restaurants and trailers ripped open and flooded with gray mud -brown. A boat was lodged in a telephone pole. Another was backed by a restaurant.

Shrimp captain Leonard Hunte, 77, and his nephew survived by clinging to a piece of polystyrene that was floating near Hunte’s mobile home.

“The water was up there,” Hunte said, pointing to the roof of his motorhome.

“I hung on that tree for three hours,” said his nephew Shaun Hunte, 55, a part-time shrimper.

Many in the area have lost not just homes but jobs. Edward Madden, whose mobile home at Sunnyland Trailer Court near the bridge was also flooded, said he had seen photos that showed the Dairy Queen where he worked was empty.

“The water is all in it. There isn’t much left,” said Madden, 60.

He circled the RV park, looking for neighbors to help him, his neon green shirt, khaki shorts and sneakers covered in mud. When passing strangers asked how he was doing, Madden replied, “No more house.”

“You have your life, though,” one man said, hugging him.

“We have our lives,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”

On debris-strewn San Carlos Boulevard, Daryl Silva’s recent arrival felt both blessed and cursed.

Silva, 66, a retired UPS employee and U.S. Navy veteran trained in search and rescue, had just moved to the Minneapolis area two months earlier, bringing several vintage cars, motorcycles and a new sedan . All flooded, along with family heirlooms stored with them in a first-floor garage under the flat where he sheltered during the storm. He estimated his losses at $300,000.

“I’m lucky to be alive. The sad thing is that every single one of my photos from my childhood, my mother’s and father’s urns are in there,’ he said as he sat outside near its quay, where two foreign ships had lodged during the storm. “People need to know when they’re telling you to go, go. I’m a badass. Do you think I have a water thing? No. I didn’t even receive any money.

Early Thursday, Silva walked across the bridge to see what was left of Fort Myers Beach — very little, he said.

“Hooters gone – demolished to the ground. Everything on that beach is gone except the condos,” he said.

In Tampa, which earlier this week was preparing for catastrophic damage, residents and officials were left stunned Thursday by their relative good fortune.

There were scattered reports of downed power lines, downed trees, damage to homes and power outages in the area. But by mid-morning, the largest counties in Tampa Bay had lifted mandatory evacuation orders that covered millions of residents in the days before Ian’s arrival.

“Damage is minimal in the evacuated areas,” said Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley.

Alphonso Poole, who chose to ride out the storm from his Harper Street bungalow, said storm conditions in the area were ‘nothing’.

“I weathered the storm and had more coffee,” he said, smiling, as he stood in the front yard of his neighbor’s house. “We are tough here, we have to keep living.”

Hennessy-Fiske, Shammas and Rozsa reported from Florida. Brulliard reported from Boulder, Colorado. Jason Samenow and Zach Rosenthal in Washington contributed to this report.

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