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The death toll was mounting and residents were scrambling for help Thursday as the historically powerful Hurricane Ian, now a tropical storm, slammed into Florida with heavy rain and strong winds. one of the strongest systems in US history.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called the storm a “500-year flood” and said Coast Guard helicopters were plucking residents from their rooftops. Communities across the state have been or will be inundated by extreme waters, he said.
“The impact of this storm is historic and the damage that was done is historic,” DeSantis said. “We’ve never seen flooding like this, we’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude.”
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marcena told CNN that at least five deaths were confirmed in his county. And a 72-year-old Delta man died after falling into a canal while draining a pool with a hose during heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said.
More than 2.6 million Florida homes and businesses were without power Thursday morning.
Ian has weakened to a tropical storm, but is forecast to continue rumbling across the state for most of the day before heading into the Atlantic. The storm flooded entire communities, leaving residents stranded in their homes with maximum winds of 150 mph – just 7 mph shy of a Category 5 hurricane, the world’s strongest Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.
Earlier, the storm hit Cuba, killing two people and knocking out the country’s electrical grid.
►The US Coast Guard was still searching for more than 20 Cuban migrants after their boat sank in stormy weather off the Florida Keys.
► Ian’s force when he came ashore bound him to the fifth strongest hurricane when measured in terms of wind speed, it is tied with five other hurricanes that reached 150 miles per hour – two in Florida, two in Louisiana and one in Texas.
►Waffle House, known for its excellent waffles and always open, said 35 locations were closed due to the storm Thursday morning.
► Residents described c terror after a tornado tore through a condominium complex near Delray Beach, tearing off roofs and overturning vehicles. “I felt things fly past my head and face,” resident Jim Travis said. “When I opened the door, my apartment was destroyed.” Read more.
GET TEXT UPDATES: Sign up for text message updates here on Hurricane Jan.
HURRICANE IAN TRACKER: Where is Jan going? See the map.
FORECAST IANS: Ian will likely spend his days pouring rain in Florida. Here is the perspective.
Elizabeth Hayes watched the entirety of Hurricane Ian pass over her home in North Port, 50 miles northwest of Fort Myers, through a hole in the shutters. A longtime resident says she wasn’t prepared for the devastating flood — and she knows the floodwaters are coming. She said only the roof of her backyard shed is above water. North Port residents use small boats, kayaks and paddle boards to check on homes that flooded along the Meccahatchee Creek Thursday morning.
“We’ve seen the flood, we’ve been on a boat before, but this is devastating,” Hayes said.
Most Florida airports remain closed on Thursday and many flights are cancelled. Open airports are facing both delays and cancellations.
Nearly 2,000 U.S. flights were canceled Thursday, with the largest number in Florida, according to Flight Aware, which tracks flight status in real time. Travel through parts of Georgia and the Carolinas is also affected as the storm moves north. Tampa International Airport officials tweeted that a damage assessment is being carried out.
“We are closely coordinating our recovery with the FAA, TSA, airlines, and other partners based on road safety, facility readiness, and required personnel,” the statement said. “We hope to have an update on the reopening plans later today.”
– Eva Chen, USA TODAY
A section of Sanibel Road collapsed into San Carlos Bay, cutting off access to the barrier island, which is normally home to 6,300 people. A mandatory evacuation order was issued on the island ahead of the storm, but it is unclear how many people remain.
DeSantis said Thursday morning that more than 100 engineers, two at a time, will work to assess bridges along Florida’s west coast.
President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration to make federal funding available to affected Florida residents in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. DeSantis said he will be asking for the declaration to be extended as more counties report severe damage from Yan.
Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help residents and business owners recover from the effects of a disaster. Federal funding is also available for trash removal.
Biden said his administration “continues to take swift action to help Florida families … I want the people of Florida to know that we will be here every step of the way.”
The hurricane’s center made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane Wednesday afternoon near Cayo Costa, a barrier island west of heavily populated Fort Myers in Lee County.
“While I don’t have confirmed numbers, I know for a fact that the death toll is in the hundreds,” Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marcheno told ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” “There are thousands of people waiting to be saved.”
Pressed on the numbers, Marcena said “there are hundreds confirmed so far. That means we’re responding to events, drownings. Again, we’re not sure of the exact details because we’re just starting to scratch the surface of this estimate.”
Emergency crews sawed down fallen trees to reach people in flooded homes. “If the line is busy, keep trying,” Marcheno said in a Facebook post Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis played down Marcin’s numbers, saying “none of this has been confirmed.”
“I mean, there were 911 calls from people in their homes saying, ‘Hey, the water’s rising. I’m going up to the attic. But I’m really worried,” DeSantis said.
More than 2.5 million homes and businesses across Florida were reported to be without power Thursday morning PowerOutage.us. Most homes and businesses in 12 counties were without power, although authorities said they were making progress, with power restored to 500,000.
Power lines in Lee and Charlotte counties will likely have to be restored, DeSantis said.
“Lee and Charlotte are pretty much down at this point,” DeSantis said. “It’s going to be more than just connecting a power line to a pole,” he said.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said Ian will move away from the east coast of Florida, turn northwest and may re-strengthen to hurricane status before making landfall again in South Carolina. The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia have preemptively declared states of emergency.
“State agencies are working together and preparing for the possible effects of Hurricane Ian,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMasters said on Twitter. “Every South Carolinian should do the same – take the time now to make a plan for every contingency.”
The roof of the hospital is partially torn off, the fire station is flooded: the destruction in Florida
Parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast were hit by Hurricane Ian as it swept through the state, damaging buildings and homes and flooding communities.
Water flowed through the streets of Naples, creating giant waves that blocked roads and overwhelmed the city’s fire department. Video released by Naples Fire and Rescue showed crews rescuing equipment and fire engines more than 3 feet deep. In Cape Coral, about 30 miles up the coast, pictures showed a sailboat abandoned in the middle of the road near homes.
Nearby Fort Myers had a severe storm flooding of coastal communities and the area surrounding WINK News, the local CBS affiliate. The video showed water reaching the windshields of cars in the studio parking lot and some of the storm surge seeping into the building.
Further north along the coast, a powerful storm flooded the emergency room on the lower level of a hospital in Port Charlotte, while strong winds blew part of the roof off an intensive care unit, according to a doctor who works there.
Water poured from above into the intensive care unit, forcing staff to evacuate the hospital’s sickest patients — some on ventilators — to other floors, said Dr. Birgit Bodin of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital. Employees used towels and plastic containers to try to mop up the soggy mess.
Officials have warned that flash flooding is possible across the state, which could lead to environmental contamination and radioactive waste overflows.
SAFFIR-SIMPSAN WIND SPEED SCALE:A breakdown of the wind speed scale for hurricanes.
HOW TO COMPARE HURRICANE YAN:Category 5 hurricanes are rare. Is Yan’s strike the worst the US has seen?
Contributing: Kate Cimini, USA Today Network-Florida; Associated Press