Rescue efforts were underway Thursday as Ian barreled northeast across Florida, cutting off power to more than 2.6 million people and leaving a wide swath of floodwater and destruction. President Joe Biden said the storm “could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.”
“We’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life,” the president said after a Federal Emergency Management Agency briefing Thursday afternoon.
“The danger is real, to state the obvious,” Biden said. “Don’t go outside unless you absolutely have to. It’s risky for you and it impedes first responders from doing their job.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), at an earlier news conference, described floodwaters across the state as “historic.”
“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,” DeSantis said. “Some of the flooding you’re going to see, in areas that are hundreds of miles from where this made landfall, are going to set records.”
At least two fatalities may be linked to the storm, DeSantis said, but a sheriff’s report of “hundreds” of fatalities in Lee County was “an estimate” likely impacted by 911 calls from people who described themselves as stuck on roofs and in attics amid rising water.
A 72-year-old man was found dead around 1 a.m. Thursday in Deltona after going outside during the storm to drain his swimming pool. The man’s wife called for help after he didn’t return. Deputies later found him lying unresponsive in a nearby canal that he had been draining the water into, the Volusia County Sheriff’s office said.
In southeast Florida, officials said the body of a 34-year-old man was found in floodwaters in Martin County.
U.S. border officials said 20 Cuban migrants were missing after their boat sank off the coast Wednesday.
Ian came ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 150 mph winds. In the Fort Myers area, near where it made landfall, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office shared a stunning aerial video of the devastation.
It showed homes leveled, splintered, burning and still partially submerged. In other areas, bridges and roads had been washed out, and trees were flattened.
The storm lost strength and was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday morning. Still, its sustained high winds and immense rain remained an active threat to central and northeast Florida as it lumbered toward the Atlantic coast.
The National Weather Service warned that central Florida will continue to see “widespread life-threatening catastrophic flooding, with major to record river flooding” throughout Thursday. Northern Florida, southeast Georgia and eastern South Carolina will see what the weather service described as “considerable flooding” through the end of the week.
In Florida’s northeast corner, some areas in the St John’s region, south of Jacksonville, may have been deluged with 4 feet of rain “in a matter of hours,” Rescue Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said. A flash flood emergency was declared for Volusia County’s coastline, which includes the Daytona Beach area, until noon.
In Orange County, where lakes overflowed into surrounding neighborhoods, nine searches were underway Thursday for missing people, Guthrie said.
Utility workers, meanwhile, began working to restore power to the millions left in the dark. DeSantis cautioned that some areas will remain without electricity until infrastructure can be rebuilt.
“Lee and Charlotte are basically off the grid at this point,” the governor said of two southwestern counties slammed in Ian’s initial landfall where power connections will have to be entirely rebuilt.
Over 2.6 million customers remained without power Thursday, according to online tracker PowerOutage.us. The majority were in southwest Florida.
President Joe Biden on Thursday approved a major disaster declaration for Florida, making federal funding available for residents in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.
The federal help can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. DeSantis said he spoke with Biden and the disaster declaration will likely be expanded to other areas as the storm moves north.