UPDATE: (4:05 p.m. CDT Sept. 29):
By ADRIANA GOMEZ-LICON
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Rescue crews piloted boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to save thousands of Floridians trapped after Hurricane Ian destroyed homes and businesses and left millions in the dark.
The devastation began to come into focus a day after Ian made landfall in Florida as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. The storm flooded homes on both the state’s coasts, cut off the only bridge to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out electricity to 2.67 million Florida homes and businesses — nearly a quarter of utility customers. At least one man was confirmed dead.
Aerial photos from the Fort Myers area, a few miles west of where Ian struck land, showed homes ripped from their slabs and deposited among shredded wreckage. Businesses near the beach were completely razed, leaving just twisted debris. Broken docks floated at odd angles beside damaged boats, and fires smoldered on lots where houses once stood.
“We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told a news conference. “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 flooding event.”
Though downgraded to a tropical storm by Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center said storm surge and flooding rains remained a threat as Ian crept across the Florida peninsula and emerged in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Canaveral. Forecasters predicted Ian would regain strength while turning northward.
A hurricane warning was issued for the South Carolina coast, where the storm was expected to again make landfall.
Sheriffs in southwest Florida said 911 centers were inundated by thousands of stranded 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 members of federal urban search-and-rescue teams were also in the area.
In the Orlando area, Orange County firefighters used boats to reach people in a flooded neighborhood. A photo the department posted on Twitter showed one firefighter carrying someone in his arms through knee-deep water. At an area nursing home, patients were carried on stretchers across floodwaters to a waiting bus.
Among those rescued was Joseph Agboona. “We were happy to get out,” he said after grabbing two bags of possessions when water rose to the windows in his Orlando home. “It was very, very bad.”
In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours holding a dining room table against their patio door, fearing the storm raging outside “was tearing our house apart.”
“I was terrified,” Bartley said. “What we heard was the shingles and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house.”
The storm ripped away patio screens and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but left the roof intact and her family unharmed.
Despite utter devastation in parts of Fort Myers, some people left shelters to return home Thursday afternoon. Long lines formed at gas stations and a Home Depot opened, letting in a few customers at a time.
Frank Pino was near the back of the line, with about 100 people in front of him.
“I hope they leave something,” Pino said, “because I need almost everything.”
Authorities confirmed at least one Florida death — a 72-year-old man in Deltona who fell into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. Two other storm deaths were reported in Cuba.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office was scrambling to respond to thousands of 911 calls in the Fort Myers area, but many roads and bridges were impassable.
“We still cannot access many of the people that are in need,” Marceno told ABC’s “Good Morning America.
Emergency crews sawed through toppled trees to reach stranded people. Many in the hardest-hit areas were unable to call for help because of electrical and cellular outages.
Christine Bomlitz was unable to reach her mother by phone after the storm made landfall south of Englewood, where the 84-year-old woman lives in a retirement community. Bomlitz said her mother was supposed to evacuate but wasn’t picked up, so the anxious daughter from Las Vegas posted a plea for help on social media.
Some Good Samaritans came to her aid Thursday, one of them wading in chest-deep floodwaters to perform a welfare check. Relieved that her mother had weathered the storm, Bomlitz was working to arrange a boat rescue.
“I’m thankful for this stranger, a total stranger,” Bomlitz said.
A chunk of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the sea, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people live. It was unknown how many heeded orders to evacuate, but Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Patrick Fuller expressed cautious optimism.
No deaths or injuries have been confirmed in the county, and flyovers of barrier islands show “the integrity of the homes is far better than we anticipated,” Fuller said.
South of Sanibel Island, the historic beachfront pier in Naples was destroyed, with even the pilings underneath torn out. “Right now, there is no pier,” said Penny Taylor, a Collier County commissioner.
In Port Charlotte, a hospital’s emergency room flooded and fierce winds ripped away 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 the staff prepared for storm victims to arrive, said Dr. Birgit Bodine of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital.
Ian struck Florida as a monstrous Category 4 storm, with 150 mph (241 kph) winds that tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the U.S.
While scientists generally avoid blaming climate change for specific storms without detailed analysis, Ian’s watery destruction fits what scientists have predicted for a warmer world: stronger and wetter hurricanes, though not necessarily more of them.
“This business about very, very heavy rain is something we’ve expected to see because of climate change,” said MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel. “We’ll see more storms like Ian.”
Even after weakening, Ian’s tropical storm-force winds still reached 415 miles (667 kilometers) from its center. Forecasters predicted the Atlantic waters would strengthen it to a Category 1 hurricane before it makes landfall Friday in South Carolina.
The National Hurricane Center warned storm surge of 6 feet (1.83 meters) or more was possible from Daytona Beach, Florida, to north of Charleston, South Carolina. Rainfall of up to 8 inches (20.32 centimeters) threatened flooding in the Carolinas and Virginia.
Associated Press contributors include Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Tim Reynolds in Fort Myers, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington; and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York.
The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, is asking his city to shut down Friday as storm Ian approaches.
“There will be water tomorrow in this city,” Mayor John Tecklenburg said.
No evacuations have been ordered in South Carolina, with Ian forecast to make landfall a second time Friday along the state’s coast as a minimal hurricane.
Forecasters warn several feet of ocean water could surge into low areas along the coast, like Charleston.
The flooding could rival or even slightly exceed recent hurricanes.
“Take this storm seriously,” Tecklenburg said. “Tomorrow, stay home and stay out of harm’s way.”
Charleston has bought new equipment to deal with flooding, including two high-water vehicles that will patrol the city all day Friday.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Rain and overflow from rivers is causing severe flooding near parts of Florida’s Atlantic coast as storm Ian makes its way back out to sea, officials said Thursday.
The Daytona Beach region is experiencing “historic flooding” that includes water in people’s homes, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said at a news conference. He implored people to stay off the roads, and the county has imposed a curfew until 7 a.m. Friday.
“This is unprecedented for Volusia County,” said local emergency management official Jim Judge.
Farther inland, residents of a nursing home were taken to ambulances and buses Thursday morning in an Orlando neighborhood that doesn’t typically flood.
Paramedics rolled Avante Orlando residents out on stretchers and wheelchairs. At a neighboring apartment complex, cars were submerged in the parking lot.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office posted photos of deputies helping two people and a dog get to dry land north of Orlando.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Ian marched across central Florida on Thursday as a tropical storm after battering the state’s southwest coast, dropping heavy rains that caused flooding and led to inland rescues and evacuations.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet that “water is at least waist deep” in Orlavista, near Orlando. The agency’s emergency response crews assisted with rescues.
Orange County Fire Rescue tweeted videos of floodwaters, rescues and evacuations.
On the southwest coast, crews worked to clear roads in the Fort Myers area, and police reminded residents trying to return to their homes that a curfew is in place.
“We understand that residents want to check on their belongings and families, but we urge you to STAY OFF local roadways,” police tweeted.
Ian is expected to regain near-hurricane strength after emerging over Atlantic waters near the Kennedy Space Center later in the day, with South Carolina in its sights for a second U.S. landfall.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke by telephone Thursday morning to discuss the next steps in the federal response to Hurricane Ian.
Biden formally issued a disaster declaration Thursday morning and told DeSantis that he was dispatching Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell to Florida on Friday to check in on response efforts and to gauge where additional support will be needed.
Meanwhile, officials at Tampa International Airport tweeted that damage assessments are underway there and that they hope to have an update later Thursday on plans to reopen.
IAFC curates Hurricane Ian resources for first responders
A list of relevant and authoritative situational awareness resources for use by fire and EMS leaders
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The U.S. Coast Guard began performing hurricane rescue missions on barrier islands off southwest Florida early Thursday, as soon as the winds died down, Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference.
“The Coast Guard had people who were in their attics and got saved off their rooftops,” DeSantis said. The most vulnerable areas were along the barrier islands of Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties, along with inlets and inland areas along rivers.
Power failures from Hurricane Ian are significant, he said. Two counties, Lee and Charlotte, “are basically off the grid at this point,” the governor said, and will likely have to rebuild the power structure.
“We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” DeSantis 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 flooding event.”
An earlier report of hundreds of deaths in Lee County has not been confirmed and was likely an estimate based on 911 calls, the governor said.
DeSantis said he will ask the federal government to expand its emergency declaration to cover counties in central Florida that are also reporting damage.
Ian hits southwest Florida as Category 4 storm, trapping people in homes and knocking out power
A Naples fire station has flooded, and some cities have suspended emergency services
NAPLES, Fla. — The Naples Pier, a top tourist destination, has been destroyed by Hurricane Ian, with even the pilings torn out, a county official said Thursday.
The storm sent waves of at least 20 feet over the historic structure, said Penny Taylor, a commission in Collier County.
“Right now, there is no pier,” Taylor said.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CBS News on Thursday that the agency has “put together a large search and rescue capability” and that searchers are combing areas of southwest Florida where people may be trapped.
To the north in the Tampa Bay area, officials lifted evacuation orders. Beachfront communities around St. Petersburg and Clearwater emerged largely unscathed, with the main damage being toppled trees and power lines, officials said.
But with the storm still marching across the state, highway officials closed the Florida Turnpike in the Orlando area because of flooding.
Firefighters, EMS providers prepare for Hurricane Ian to hit Florida
USAR teams have been deployed to a staging area, and local fire departments have been issuing safety reminders to their communities
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Valerie Bartley’s neighborhood in the Fort Myers area had been under an evacuation order ahead of Hurricane Ian, but she felt it was too late to leave Tuesday with no plans in place.
As the strong storm passed overhead, she and her husband had to push their dining room table against a sliding door leading to the back patio because they felt the wind was going to blow it into the house, she said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“My husband just sat there and held it for two hours,” said Bartley, 36.
“I was terrified through it. What we heard was the shingles and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house. It sounded like the shingles were being ripped out,” she said.
Bartley said her 4-year-old daughter gave her courage. “She grabbed my hand and said, ‘I am scared, too, but it is going to be OK.'”
Their patio was torn apart, with some sections missing, and trees were down in their back yard, but their own roof and house stayed mostly intact.