With a death toll nearing three dozen, rescuers searched on Saturday for survivors among the Florida homes ruined by Hurricane Ian, while authorities in North and South Carolina began assessing the damage from the powerful storm’s strike.
Ian, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States, terrorized millions of people for most of the week, battering western Cuba before raking across Florida from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean and then mustering a final assault on the Carolinas. The storm then weakened on Saturday rolling into the mid-Atlantic.
At least 34 people were confirmed dead, including 27 people in Florida — mostly from drowning but others from the storm’s tragic aftereffects. An elderly couple died after their oxygen machines shut off when they lost power, authorities said. Four more deaths were reported in North Carolina and three earlier in Cuba.
As of Saturday, more than 1,000 people had been rescued from flooded areas along Florida’s southwestern coast alone, Daniel Hokanson, a four-star general and head of the National Guard, told The Associated Press while airborne to Florida.
About 1.4 million homes and businesses were without power in the Carolinas and Florida as of 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, down from 1.7 million at 8 a.m., according to tracking website PowerOutage.us.
“I want to sit in the corner and cry. I don’t know what else to do,” Stevie Scuderi said after shuffling through her mostly destroyed Fort Myers,Fla., apartment, the mud in her kitchen clinging to her purple sandals.
In South Carolina, Ian’s centre came ashore Friday afternoon near Georgetown, a small community along the Winyah Bay about 95 kilometres north of historic Charleston. The storm washed away parts of four piers along the coast, including two connected to the popular tourist town of Myrtle Beach.
With a population of about 10,000, Georgetown is a tourist destination known for its oak tree-lined streets and historic downtown. It was heavily damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
South Carolina’s Pawleys Island, a beach community about 117 kilometres up the coast from Charleston, was among the places hardest hit by Ian, and power remained knocked out to at least half of the island on Saturday.
A city-commissioned report released in November 2020 found that about 90 per cent of all residential properties were vulnerable to storm-surge flooding.
The storm’s winds were much weaker on Friday than during Ian’s landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast earlier in the week. There authorities and volunteers were still assessing the damage as shocked residents tried to make sense of what they just lived through.
Fatalities reported in North Carolina
In North Carolina, the storm claimed at least four lives and appeared to have mainly downed trees and power lines, leaving more than 280,000 people across the state without power Saturday morning, officials said.
Separate vehicle crashes claimed two lives in the storm, the North Carolina officials said. One man drowned when his truck plunged into a swamp, and another man died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a closed garage.
“We mourn with the families of those who have died and urge everyone to be cautious while cleaning up to avoid more deaths or injuries,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement.
There were no initial reports of major structural damage, although more than 241,600 people across the state were without power Saturday afternoon, according to North Carolina Emergency Management.
Scrambling to escape
Anthony Rivera, 25, said he had to climb through the window of his first-floor apartment in Fort Myers during the storm to carry his grandmother and girlfriend to the second floor. As they hurried to escape the rising water, the storm surge had washed a boat right up next to his apartment.
“That’s the scariest thing in the world because I can’t stop no boat,” he said. “I’m not Superman.”
Even though Ian has long passed over Florida, new problems continued to arise. A 22-kilometre stretch of major Interstate 75 was closed late Friday in both directions in the Port Charlotte area because of the huge amount of water swelling the Myakka River.
The official death toll climbed throughout the day on Friday, with authorities warning it would likely rise much higher once crews made a more comprehensive sweep of the damage. Searches on Friday were aimed at emergency rescues and initial assessments, said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. He described one submerged home as an example.
Woman swept into ocean
“The water was up over the rooftop, right, but we had a Coast Guard rescue swimmer swim down into it and he could identify that it appeared to be human remains. We do not know exactly how many,” Guthrie said.
The dead included a 68-year-old woman swept into the ocean by a wave and a 67-year-old man who fell into rising water inside his home while awaiting rescue.
Authorities also said a 22-year-old woman died after an ATV rollover from a road washout, and a 71-year-old man suffered a fatal fall from a rooftop while putting up rain shutters. Another three people died in Cuba earlier in the week.
Hurricane Ian has likely caused “well over” $100 billion US in damage, including $63 billion in privately insured losses, according to the disaster modelling firm Karen Clark & Company, which regularly issues flash catastrophe estimates. If those numbers are borne out, that would make Ian at least the fourth costliest hurricane in U.S. history.