Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian smashed into Florida and carved a path of destruction into the Carolinas, hundreds of thousands of people faced another day without electricity on Tuesday as rescuers pressed on with their search for anyone trapped inside flooded and damaged homes.
At least 79 people have been confirmed dead from the storm: 71 in Florida, five in North Carolina and three in Cuba since Ian made landfall on the Caribbean island on Sept. 27, a day before it reached Florida.
The number of storm-related deaths has risen in recent days because of the dangers posed by cleaning up and as search-and-rescue crews comb through some of the hardest-hit areas of Florida.
Officials said that as of Monday, more than 2,350 people had been rescued throughout the state.
Power restoration is priority
Ian knocked out power to 2.6 million customers across Florida after it roared ashore with 241 km/h winds and a powerful storm surge.
Since then, crews have been feverishly working to restore electricity infrastructure. State officials said they expect power to be restored by Sunday to customers whose power lines and other electric infrastructure is still intact.
In Naples, Kelly Sedgwick was just seeing news footage Monday of the devastation Ian had caused, thanks to power that was restored four days after the hurricane slammed into her Gulf Coast community of roughly 22,000 people.
She said she was “relieved” to have her power back and praised the crews for their hard work: “They’ve done a remarkable job.”
A few miles north along the coast, in Bonita Springs, Catalina Mejilla’s family wasn’t as lucky. She was still using a borrowed generator to try to keep her kids and their grandfather cool amid the temperatures in the typically humid area that reached about 30 degrees Celsius.
“The heat is unbearable,” Mejilla said. “When there’s no power … we can’t make food, we don’t have gas.”
She added: “I think they should give power to the people who are most in need.”
About 430,000 homes and businesses in Florida were still without power early Tuesday.
Power restoration is always a key challenge after major hurricanes, when high winds and flying debris can topple power lines or major parts of the electricity infrastructure.
Eric Silagy, chairman and CEO of Florida Power and Light, said the utility has invested $4 billion US over the last 10 years to harden its infrastructure by doing things such as burying more power lines, noting that 40 per cent of its distribution system is now underground.
Florida Power and Light — the largest provider in the state — is also using more technology such as drones to get a better picture of damage to the system. It uses sensors at substations that can alert them to flooding so they can shut off parts of the system before the water arrives.
The utility expects to have power restored to 95 per cent of its service areas by the end of the day Friday, Silagy said.
Storm is now a nor’easter
President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, plan to visit Florida on Wednesday. The U.S. president was in Puerto Rico on Monday, promising to “rebuild it all” after Hurricane Fiona knocked out all power to the island two weeks ago.
Elsewhere, the hurricane’s remnants, now a nor’easter, weren’t done with the U.S. Heavy rain fell Tuesday 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 North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Long Island, New York.
“If people had not heeded warnings, I think it could have been a lot worse,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday.