Floridians are enduring a slow wait for the power knocked out by Ian

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Ian may be long gone from Florida, but workers on the ground pressed ahead Tuesday to restore power and search for anyone still trapped in flooded or damaged homes.

The number of storm-related deaths has risen to at least 80 in recent days, both because of the dangers of cleanup and as search and rescue crews comb the hardest-hit areas. Officials said that as of Monday, more than 2,350 people had been rescued across the state.

At least 71 people have been killed in Florida, five in North Carolina, three in Cuba and one in Virginia since Ian made landfall on the Caribbean island on September 27, a day before it reached Florida’s Gulf Coast. After churning in the northeast Atlantic, the hurricane made landfall again in South Carolina before penetrating the mid-Atlantic states.

There have been deaths in car wrecks, drownings and accidents. A man drowned after being trapped under a vehicle. Another was caught trying to climb through a window. And one woman died when a gust of wind knocked her off her porch while she was smoking a cigarette as the storm approached, authorities said.

In the hardest-hit Lee County, Florida, all 45 people killed by the hurricane were over 50.

As floodwaters begin to recede, power restoration has become a job.

In Naples, Kelly Sedgwick just saw news photos Monday of the devastation. Her electricity was restored four days after the hurricane slammed into her community of about 22,000 people. She praised the crews for their hard work: “They have done a remarkable job.”

A few miles north along the coast in Bonita Springs, Catalina Mejilla’s family was not so lucky. She still used a borrowed generator to try to keep her children and their grandfather cool as temperatures in the typically humid area reached the upper 80s (about 30 degrees Celsius).

“The heat is unbearable,” Mejilla said. “When there’s no power … we can’t cook, we don’t have gas.” Her mother is having trouble breathing and had to go to a friend’s house with power.

Ian knocked out power to 2.6 million customers across Florida after it roared ashore with 150 mph (241 km/h) winds and a powerful storm surge. State officials said they expect power to be restored by Sunday to customers whose power lines and other electrical infrastructure are still intact.

About 400,000 homes and businesses in Florida were still without power Tuesday.

Eric Silagy, chairman and CEO of Florida Power & Light — the state’s largest utility — said he understands the frustration and that 21,000 utility workers from 30 states are working as hard as they can to restore power as quickly as possible. The utility expects to have power restored to 95% of its service areas by the end of Friday, he said.

The remaining 5% are mostly special situations where it is difficult to restore electricity, such as the home being so damaged that it cannot receive power, or the area still being flooded. These outages do not include customers whose homes or businesses were destroyed.

Another major electricity supplier in the hard-hit coastal region, Lee County Electric Cooperative, said Monday it expects to reach the 95% mark by the end of Saturday. That figure does not include barrier islands like Sanibel that are in its service area.

Restoring power is always a key challenge after major hurricanes, where high winds and flying debris can knock down power lines or large parts of the electrical infrastructure.

Silagy said the utility has invested $4 billion over the past 10 years to harden its infrastructure, doing things like burying more power lines, noting that 40% of its distribution system is now underground. The utility is also using more technology such as drones that can stay in the air for hours to get a better picture of damage, and sensors at substations that warn the utility of flooding so it can shut down parts of the system before the water arrives.

Silagy said he saw under Ian where those investments paid off. Concrete pilings remained standing at Fort Myers Beach, where many homes and businesses were obliterated. The company also did not lose a single transmission structure in the 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) it covers in Florida.

Elsewhere, the remnants of the hurricane, now a nor’easter, were not done with the United States. On Tuesday, heavy rain fell from Philadelphia to Boston, though not enough to cause flooding. The storm’s onshore winds are causing some minor ocean flooding at high tide from the North Carolina Outer Banks to Long Island, New York.

“If people hadn’t listened to warnings, I think it could have been a lot worse,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday as he reviewed how his state handled the storm.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden plans to visit Florida on Wednesday. The president was in Puerto Rico on Monday and vowed to “rebuild it all back” after Hurricane Fiona knocked out all power. to the island two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, in Florida neighborhoods still without power, many residents have shared generators to keep things like refrigerators cool and use outdoor grills to cook.

In Bonita Springs, Paula Arbuckle sat outside her one-story home as the sound of the generator under her carport roared. She bought a generator after Hurricane Irma left her neighborhood without power in 2017. She hadn’t used it since, but after Ian turned off the lights, she shared it with her neighbor. Arbuckle said being without power is tough.

“But I’m not the only one,” she said. She gestured to her neighbor’s house, “I have a generator. They have a little baby over there. So we share the generator between the two homes.”

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Associated Press reporters Bobby Caina Calvan in Fort Myers; Frieda Frisaro and David Fischer in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando; Gary D. Robertson of Raleigh, North Carolina; and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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This story has been updated to correct the year of Hurricane Irma to 2017, not 2018.

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For more AP coverage of Hurricane Ian: apnews.com/hub/hurricanes

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