11 July 2024

(AFP) – Shocked Florida communities on Saturday faced the full scale of the devastation brought by Hurricane Ian, as the death toll from one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States climbed steadily into the dozens.

Rescuers were still searching for survivors in submerged neighborhoods and along the state’s southwest coast, where homes, restaurants and businesses were ripped apart when Ian roared ashore as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday.

The confirmed number of storm-related deaths stood at 25 statewide, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, but reports of additional deaths were still emerging county by county -– pointing to a far higher final toll.

Hard-hit Lee County alone recorded 35 fatalities, according to its sheriff, while US media including NBC and CBS tallied more than 70 deaths either directly or indirectly related to the storm.

In the coastal state of North Carolina the governor’s office confirmed four deaths related to the storm there, in a sign of the stunning scope of monster Ian.

On Saturday in Florida’s Lee County, rescuers and ordinary citizens in boats were still saving the last trapped inhabitants of the small island of Matlacha — where debris, abandoned vehicles and downed trees littered the pummelled hamlet’s main street and surroundings that are dotted by colorful wooden houses with corrugated roofs.

The community, home to some 800 people, was cut off from the mainland following damage to two bridges, and those who fled early were only just beginning to return home to survey the destruction.

Sitting in the shadow of a deserted Matlacha house, Chip Farrar told AFP that “nobody’s telling us what to do, nobody’s telling us where to go.”

“The evacuation orders came in very late,” the 43-year-old said. “But most people that are still here wouldn’t have left anyway. It’s a very blue-collar place. And most people don’t have anywhere to go, which is the biggest issue.”

Sixteen migrants also remain missing from a boat that sank during the hurricane, according to the US Coast Guard. Two people were found dead and nine others rescued, including four Cubans who swam to shore in the Florida Keys.

More than one million customers remained without power in Florida Saturday evening, hampering efforts by those who evacuated to return to their homes to take stock of what they lost.

In Fort Myers Beach, a town on the Gulf of Mexico coast which took the brunt of the storm, Pete Belinda said the home he and his wife share on the lower floor of their daughter’s house was “just flipped upside down, soaking wet, full of mud.”

Ian barrelled over Florida and into the Atlantic Ocean before making US landfall again, this time on the South Carolina coast Friday as a Category 1 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 85 miles (140 kilometers) per hour.

It was later downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, and it was dissipating over Virginia late Saturday.

More than 55,000 people remained without power across North Carolina and Virginia, tracking website poweroutage.us said Saturday.

“We’re just beginning to see the scale of the destruction” in Florida, US President Joe Biden said Friday.

“It’s likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history,” he said of Ian.

CoreLogic, a firm that specializes in property analysis, said wind-related losses for residential and commercial properties in Florida could cost insurers up to $32 billion, while flooding losses could reach $15 billion.

“This is the costliest Florida storm since Hurricane Andrew made landfall in 1992,” CoreLogic’s Tom Larsen said.

A man walks over a broken section of the Pine Island Road in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Florida on October 1, 2022. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP)

– Rescues continue –

As of Saturday morning, Governor Ron DeSantis’s office said more than 1,100 rescues had been made across Florida.

DeSantis reported that hundreds of other rescue personnel were going door-to-door “up and down the coastline.”

Many Floridians evacuated ahead of the storm, but thousands chose to shelter in place and ride it out.

Two hard-hit barrier islands near Fort Myers — Pine Island and Sanibel Island — were cut off after the storm damaged causeways to the mainland.

Aerial photo and video show breathtaking destruction in Sanibel and elsewhere.

A handful of restaurants and bars reopened in Fort Myers, giving an illusion of normalcy amid downed trees and shattered storefronts.

Before pummelling Florida, Ian plunged all of Cuba into darkness after downing the island’s power network.

Electricity was gradually returning, especially in Havana, but many homes remain without power.

Meanwhile a new storm in the Pacific, Hurricane Orlene, intensified to Category 2 strength off the Mexican coast, where it was forecast to make landfall in the coming days.

Human-induced climate change is resulting in more severe weather events across the globe, scientists say.

A destroyed house is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Florida on October 1, 2022. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP)