The number of people killed by Hurricane Ian in Florida rose to 88 on Monday, days after the Category 4 storm made landfall, decimating coastal cities and rescue teams searching for survivors while communities faced the daunting task of rebuilding.
At least 54 people have died in Lee County alone, Sheriff Carmine Marceno said Monday — up from the county’s previously announced death toll of 42 — and officials there are facing questions about whether evacuation orders should have been issued earlier.
Hurricane Ian also contributed to the deaths of 12 people in Charlotte County, eight 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 while Ian was driving to North Carolina.
More than 1,600 people have been rescued from the path of Hurricane Ian in parts of southwest and central Florida since last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said Sunday.
Now that blue skies are returning, Floridians seeking shelter as the hurricane raged have emerged — many of them still without power or clean drinking water — and found their communities unrecognizable.
Nearly 600,000 homes, businesses and other customers in Florida were still without power as of early Monday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us. Many don’t have clean tap water, with well over 100 leads to boiling water at locations across the state, according to Florida Health Department data.
In Naples, Hank DeWolf’s 4,000-pound boat dock was carried through a condo complex by the powerful hurricane and landed in his neighbor’s yard. And the water brought someone’s car into their own backyard. He doesn’t know who owns it or how to remove it.
As crews in Naples comb through the rubble to make sure no one is trapped, residents face the daunting task of cleaning up and restoring the city, Naples city manager Jay Boodheshwar told CNN.
“People have to take care of their emotional and mental health because we really have to work together,” Boodheshwar said.
Naples suffered a record-high storm surge as the hurricane washed rising seawater into the city’s streets and destroyed its infrastructure.
“The amount of water we received and the height of the tide affected much of the infrastructure,” Boodheshwar said. “So there are Transformers that are fried. It’s not just about rehanging lines. There are things that may need to be replaced.”
Similar scenes are playing out in other communities. Hurricane Ian, predicted 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 services are looking for signs of life while simultaneously struggling with the loss of their own homes.
“Some of the guys at Pine Island lost everything, but they’re doing what they can,” said emergency physician Dr. Ben Abo preparing to join first responders Sunday near decimated Sanibel Island and Pine Island.
And the flood isn’t over yet.
Significant flooding continues in certain neighborhoods in Seminole County, with families rescued from waist-deep waters over the weekend.
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Days after the hurricane’s departure, flooding continues to increase in areas near the St. Johns River, Lake Monroe and Lake Harney, with another 100 homes damaged by flood water in the past 24 hours, Seminole County emergency management officials said the CNN subsidiary WESH.
FEMA alone cannot rebuild and support all 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 Florida coast that’s affected. We have impacts all the way through Orlando to the east coast. Places like St. Augustine have had devastating floods,” Fugate pointed out.
Hurricane Ian swept away portions of the Sanibel Causeway, which connects Sanibel Island to the mainland, stranding local residents as their only link became impassable.
Search and rescue personnel have gone door-to-door searching properties for people who may need to be evacuated, and nearly 100 members of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue continue to conduct rescue operations along Southwest Florida’s barrier islands such as Sanibel, Captiva and Pine Iceland through .
The fire rescue team helps evacuate residents, distributes medication, treats injuries, helps people connect with family and provides information that is difficult to access, said Capt. Michelle Steele, a medical specialist.
“People aren’t getting a lot of information right now. So whatever we can offer, that’s what we’re here for,” Steele said.
About 400 people were evacuated from Sanibel Island over the weekend, City Manager Dana Souza reported Sunday night, adding authorities were beginning to turn their attention to medical care for people choosing to stay on the island and not on evacuations.
Abo “wouldn’t be surprised” if the death toll rose significantly, he told CNN, as rescue and recovery efforts continue on Sanibel Island.
US Coast Guard commander Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson offered a no-nonsense assessment of the damage at Sanibel Island, saying that “the area will be out of service for some time.”
“It was hit very hard,” he said. “It has no water. The basic infrastructure is missing.”
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Amy Lynn was at her friend’s home on Sanibel Island when Ian struck, forcing her to hide in a closet with seven dogs, praying and keeping the door closed while the hurricane raged outside.
When she came out, the house was badly damaged, with walls blown away, video showed.
“I prayed for a full 6 hours and came to peace that it was my time to go. It was not. 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 was told it was destroyed.”
Lynn was thankful to be alive but wrote: “This is so much more than devastating. The heart of the coast (Southwest Florida) has changed forever.”
Lee County officials have been criticized for ordering the first mandatory evacuations just a day before Ian landed, even though an emergency plan suggests evacuations should have happened sooner.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Lee County officials acted appropriately when they issued their first mandatory evacuations on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before Hurricane Ian made landfall on the barrier island of Cayo Costa and a day after several neighboring ones Districts had given their orders.
But people are “accustomed to lengthy 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 — believed the worst effects would be felt farther north, near Tampa Bay. But then the forecast was revised to show that the storm’s path was shifting southward.
The cone of uncertainty — which forecasters use to represent the likely path of a hurricane’s center, though storm impacts can and often do extend outside of 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 landing.
“When that evacuation order came, we thought, ’24 hours, that’s not much. But we’re still going to make it through somehow,'” Critser said. “And it wasn’t until Wednesday morning that we woke up and saw that it had made another adjustment. And at that point it’s just too late.”
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 model 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 not into shelters evacuated.
“I think the most important thing that most people need to understand is that we have opened 15 shelters. During Irma there were 60,000 people in our shelters. There are currently 4,000 people in the shelters,” said Ruane.
Some residents and businesses in storm-damaged counties may not be able to get 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 to 95 percent of its 126,700 customers in Charlotte County, including Punta Gorda, Patrick Fuller by Sunday, the county’s emergency management director said Monday. About 45% of its customers have already restored power.
Meanwhile, much of the county remains under a boil-water recommendation and Punta Gorda, the county seat, will operate under the announcement 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 has been “wiped out” and needs to be completely rebuilt, Ryan Lamb, fire chief and emergency management director, told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
According to DeSantis, Florida is also working with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to use his company’s Starlink satellite internet service to restore communications in the state. “They are positioning these Starlink satellites to provide good coverage in Southwest Florida and other affected areas,” DeSantis said.