FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – Rescuers evacuated stunned survivors on a large barrier island cut off by Hurricane Ian, and Florida’s death toll soared as hundreds of thousands of people were still sweltering without power days after the monster storm ripped from the state’s southwest coast into the Carolinas.
Florida, with nearly four dozen reported dead, was hardest hit by the Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest to make landfall in the United States. Flooded roads and washed-out bridges to barrier islands left many people isolated, amid limited mobile service and a lack of basic amenities such as water, electricity and internet.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Saturday that multibillionaire businessman Elon Musk delivered about 120 Starlink satellites to “help bridge some of the communication issues.” Starlink, a satellite-based internet system created by Musk’s SpaceX, will provide high-speed connectivity.
Florida utilities were working to restore power. As of Saturday night, nearly 1 million homes and businesses were still without power, down from a peak of 2.67 million.
At least 54 people were confirmed dead: 47 in Floridafour in North Carolina and three in Cuba.
More than 1,000 people alone were rescued from flooded areas along Florida’s southwest coast, Daniel Hokanson, a four-star general and head of the National Guard, told The Associated Press while on the air for Florida.
In Washington, the White House announced that President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden would travel to Florida on Wednesday. But a brief statement did not release any details about the planned visit to the state.
The bridge to Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, was destroyed by the storm, making it accessible only by boat or air. The volunteer group Medic Corps, which responds to natural disasters worldwide with pilots, paramedics and doctors, went door-to-door asking residents if they wanted to be evacuated.
Some flew out by helicopter and people described the horror being trapped in their homes as the water continued to rise.
“The water just kept pounding the house and we saw boats, houses — we saw everything just fly by,” Joe Conforti said, fighting back tears. He said that if it wasn’t for his wife who suggested they stand up on a table to avoid the rising water, he wouldn’t have made it: “I started to lose my sensibility because when the water stands for your door and it splashes on the door and you see how fast it’s moving, there’s no way you’re going to survive that.”
River flooding at times presented a major challenge to rescue and delivery efforts. The Myakka River washed over a stretch of Interstate 75, forcing a traffic-snarling highway closure for a while before officials said later Saturday it could be reopened.
While swollen rivers have receded or are close to receding, levels are not expected to drop significantly for several days, National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming said.
Elsewhere, South Carolina’s Pawleys Island, a beach community about 75 miles (115 kilometers) up the coast from Charleston, was also hard hit. Power remained out to at least half of the island on Saturday.
Eddie Wilder, who has been coming to Pawleys Island for more than six decades, said it was “crazy” to see waves as high as 25 feet (7.6 meters) wash away a landmark pier near his home.
“We saw the pier hit and saw the pier disappear,” he said. “We saw it crumble and saw it float by with an American flag.”
Wilder’s house, which sits 30 feet (9 meters) above the shoreline, remained dry inside.
In North Carolina, the storm brought down trees and power lines. Two of the four deaths in the state were from storm-related vehicle crashes, and the others involved a man who drowned when his truck crashed into a swamp and another was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage.
At the Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers, Florida, the storm surge pushed several boats and a dock ashore. Charter Captain Ryan Kane said his vessel was so badly damaged that he was unable to use it to help rescue people, and now it will be a long time before he can take clients fishing again.
“There’s a hole in the hull. It took water in the engines. It took water in everything,” he said, adding, “You know, boats should be in the water, not in parking lots.”
Kinnard reported from Pawleys Island, South Carolina; Associated Press contributors include Freida Frisaro in Miami; Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Gerald Herbert in Pine Island, Florida; Mike Pesoli in Lehigh Acres, Florida; Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia; and Amy Forliti of Minneapolis.