Hurricane Ian: Florida death toll tops 100 as search for survivors continues



CNN

The number of people killed in Florida by Hurricane Ian rose to at least 100 on Monday, days after the storm made landfall at Category 4 strength, decimating coastal towns and leaving rescuers scrambling for survivors as communities face the daunting task of rebuilding .

At least 54 people died in Lee County alone, Sheriff Carmine Marceno said Monday — up from the county’s previously announced death toll of 42 — and officials facing questions about whether evacuation orders should have been issued earlier. Twenty-four deaths were recorded in Charlotte County – up from 12.

Hurricane Ian also contributed to the deaths of eight people in Collier County, five in Volusia County, three in Sarasota County, two in Manatee County and one each in Polk, Lake, Hendry and Hillsborough counties, officials said. Four other people died in storm-related incidents as Ian barreled into North Carolina.

More than 1,600 people have been rescued from Hurricane Ian’s path in parts of southwest and central Florida since last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said Sunday.

Now, as blue skies return, Floridians who sought shelter as the hurricane raged have emerged — many of them still without power or clean drinking water — to find their communities unrecognizable.

Nearly 600,000 homes, businesses and other customers in Florida were still without power early Monday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us. Many are without clean running water, with well over 100 boil water advisories in place around the state, according to data from the Florida Health Department.

In Naples, Hank DeWolf’s 4,000-pound boat dock was carried through an apartment complex by the powerful hurricane that landed in his neighbor’s yard. And the water brought one person’s car into his own backyard. He doesn’t know who it belongs to or how to remove it.

As crews in Naples comb through the wreckage to make sure no one is still trapped, residents face the enormous task ahead of cleaning up and restoring the city, Jay Boodheshwar, Naples city manager, told CNN.

“People need to take care of their emotional and mental health because we’re really going to have to work together on this,” Boodheshwar said.

Naples received record storm surges as the hurricane sent rising seawater into the city’s streets and tore through its infrastructure.

“The amount of water that we received and the height of the rise affected a lot of the infrastructure,” Boodheshwar said. “So there are transformers that are fried. It’s not just rearranging lines. There are things that may need to be replaced.”

A man stands in front of a home damaged by storm surge in the wake of Hurricane Ian in Naples, Florida.

Similar scenes are unfolding in other societies. Hurricane Ian — expected to be the costliest storm in Florida history — devastated neighborhoods from the state’s west coast to inland cities like Orlando.

In some cases, emergency workers searching for signs of life struggle with losing their own homes.

“Some of the guys on Pine Island, they lost everything, but they’re doing what they can,” said emergency physician Dr. Ben Abo, who was preparing to join first responders on a rescue mission Sunday near decimated Sanibel Island and Pine Island.

And the flood is not over yet.

Seminole County continues to experience significant flooding in certain neighborhoods, with families being rescued from waist-high water over the weekend.

Cameraman rushes to help the family during live report

Days after the hurricane receded, flooding continues to rise in areas near St. Johns River, Lake Monroe and Lake Harney, with another 100 homes suffering flood damage in the past 24 hours, Seminole County emergency management officials told CNN affiliate WESH.

FEMA alone cannot rebuild and provide assistance to all the communities affected by Hurricane Ian, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told CNN on Sunday. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can provide grants to communities affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters to help people get back on their feet, Fugate added.

“It’s just not the coast of Florida that’s been affected. We have impacts all the way through Orlando, up to the East Coast. Places like St. Augustine had devastating flooding,” Fugate emphasized.

Lee County officials have faced criticism over why the first mandatory evacuations were not ordered until a day before Ian’s landfall, despite an emergency plan suggesting the evacuations should have taken place earlier.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Lee County officials acted appropriately when they issued their first mandatory evacuations Tuesday, less than 24 hours before Hurricane Ian made landfall on the barrier island of Cayo Costa and a day after several neighboring counties issued their orders .

But people are “used to longer evacuation orders,” Shawn Critser, a pastor in Fort Myers Beach in Lee County, told CNN on Monday. “But we got it the day before.”

In the days leading up to the storm, Critser – like many others – thought the strongest impacts would be felt further north, near Tampa Bay. But then the forecast was revised so that the storm’s track changed to the south.

The cone of uncertainty — which forecasters use to represent the likely path to the center of a hurricane, although storm impacts can and often do extend beyond it — did not include Fort Myers three days before the storm made landfall. But on Wednesday, Ian made landfall at Cayo Costa in Lee County, a point that was inside the cone 72 hours before landfall.

“When that evacuation order came, we said ’24 hours, that’s not much. But we’re still making it,'” Critser said. “And it wasn’t until Wednesday morning when we woke up and saw that it had made another adjustment. And by that point, it’s just too late.”

Sheriff Marceno stood by the handling of the evacuation orders Monday, saying he was “confident in our county manager, our leaders, our governor, all of us in law enforcement that we got that message out at the right time.”

“We weren’t in the cone,” he said, noting the storm tracked north toward Tampa before shifting south.

“Mother Nature taught us a lesson,” he added. “It’s unpredictable. But I’m confident in the decisions that were made. And as I said yesterday, stand by them and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane also defended the timing of the orders, calling reports of a possible delay in issuing a mandatory evacuation “inaccurate.”

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“As soon as we saw the pattern shift to the northeast, we did exactly what we could to encourage people to” evacuate, Ruane said Sunday, adding that many people became “complacent” and did not evacuate to shelters.

“I think the most important thing that most people need to understand is that we opened 15 shelters. During Irma, there were 60,000 people in our shelters. There are 4,000 people in the shelters right now,” Ruane said .

Hurricane Ian obliterated parts of the Sanibel Causeway, which connects Sanibel Island to the mainland, stranding residents as their only connection became impassable.

Search and rescue personnel have gone door-to-door searching properties for anyone who may need to be evacuated, and nearly 100 members of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue continue to conduct rescue efforts along Southwest Florida’s barrier islands such as Sanibel, Captiva and Pine Island.

The fire rescue team helps evacuate residents, deliver medicine, treat injuries, help people connect with family and just provide hard-to-reach information, said Capt. Michelle Steele, a medical specialist.

“People don’t get a lot of information right now. So whatever we can offer, that’s what we’re here for,” Steele said.

A man with his dog prepare to be evacuated in a Florida Army National Guard helicopter in Pine Island, Florida.

About 400 people evacuated from Sanibel Island over the weekend, City Manager Dana Souza reported Sunday evening, adding that authorities will begin to turn their attention to providing medical services to the people who choose to stay on the island, rather than evacuations .

Abo “wouldn’t be surprised” if the death toll rises significantly, he told CNN, as rescue and recovery efforts continue on Sanibel Island.

U.S. Coast Guard Commander Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson offered a stark assessment of the damage on Sanibel Island, saying “the area will be out of order for some time.”

“It was hit very hard,” he said. “It doesn’t have water. It doesn’t have the basic infrastructure.”

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Amy Lynn was at her friend’s home on Sanibel Island when Ian hit, forcing her to hide in a closet with seven dogs, praying and holding the door closed as the hurricane roared outside.

When she came out, the home was heavily damaged, with walls blown off, video showed.

“I prayed for 6 solid hours and came to peace that it might be my time to go. It wasn’t. God is good. We made it out alive,” Lynn wrote on Facebook. “We lost everything. My car is gone. I haven’t seen my home on Sanibel. I’ve been told it’s broken.”

Lynn was grateful to be alive, but she wrote, “This is so much more than devastating. The heart of the (southwest Florida) coast is forever changed.”

Some residents and businesses in storm-damaged counties may not be back online for “weeks or months” because of the structural damage caused by the hurricane, said Eric Silagy, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light Company.

FPL expects to have power restored by Sunday to 95 percent of its 126,700 customers in Charlotte County, which includes Punta Gorda, Patrick Fuller, the county’s emergency management director, said Monday. About 45% of customers have already had power restored.

Meanwhile, much of the county remains under a boil water advisory, and Punta Gorda, the county seat, will operate under the advisory for at least three days, the city said on Facebook.

In Cape Coral, just southwest of Fort Myers, 98% of the city’s power structure was “obliterated” and will need complete rebuilding, Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Ryan Lamb told CNN’s Jim Acosta.

Florida is also working with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to use his company’s Starlink satellite Internet service to help restore communications in the state, according to DeSantis. “They are placing these Starlink satellites to provide good coverage in Southwest Florida and other affected areas,” DeSantis said.

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