The death toll from Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, topped 40 on Saturday as President Joe Biden traveled to Florida later in the week to assess devastation.
Florida’s shocked communities were just beginning to cope with the scale of the destruction, with rescuers still searching for survivors in submerged neighborhoods and along the state’s southwest coast.
Homes, restaurants and businesses were destroyed when Ian landed on Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 hurricane.
The number of confirmed storm-related deaths rose to 44 statewide, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission said Saturday evening, but reports of additional fatalities continued to emerge county by county – indicating a final toll much higher.
Hard-hit Lee County alone has recorded 35 deaths, according to its sheriff, while US media including NBC and CBS have recorded more than 70 deaths directly or indirectly related to the storm.
In the coastal state of North Carolina, the governor’s office has confirmed four deaths related to Ian.
Biden and his wife, Jill, will travel to Florida on Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted, but the couple will first travel to Puerto Rico on Monday to study the destruction caused by another storm, Hurricane Fiona, which hit the United States. territory last month.
On Saturday in Lee County, Florida, rescuers and ordinary citizens aboard boats were still rescuing the last trapped residents of the small island of Matlacha. Debris, abandoned vehicles and downed trees littered the main street of the hamlet and its surroundings, dotted with colorful wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs.
The community, home to around 800 people, was cut off from the mainland following damage to two bridges, and those who fled early were just beginning to return home to witness the destruction.
Sitting in the shade of a deserted house in Matlacha, Chip Farrar told AFP that “nobody tells us what to do, nobody tells us where to go”.
“The evacuation orders came very late,” the 43-year-old said. “But most people who are still here wouldn’t have left anyway. It’s a very working-class place. And most people have nowhere to go, which is the biggest problem.”
Sixteen migrants were 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 900,000 customers were left without power in Florida on Saturday night, hampering efforts by those who evacuated to return home to take stock of what they’ve lost.
In Fort Myers Beach, a town on the Gulf Coast that bore the brunt of the storm, Pete Belinda said his house was “just knocked over, soaked, full of mud.”
Ian swept over Florida and into the Atlantic Ocean before making landfall in the United States again, this time off the coast of South Carolina on Friday as a Category 1 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds 140 km/h.
It was later downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone and dissipated over Virginia on Saturday evening.
More than 45,000 people were left without power in North Carolina and Virginia, tracking website poweroutage.us said Saturday.
CoreLogic, a property analysis firm, said wind-related losses for residential and commercial properties in Florida could cost insurers up to $32 billion, while flood losses could reach $15 billion. billions of dollars.
“This is the costliest storm in Florida since Hurricane Andrew made landfall in 1992,” said CoreLogic’s Tom Larsen.
The rescues continue
On Saturday morning, Governor Ron DeSantis’ office said more than 1,100 rescues had been completed across Florida.
DeSantis reported that hundreds of rescuers were going door to door “along the coast”.
Many Floridians evacuated ahead of the storm, but thousands chose to shelter in place and make their way 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 photos and videos show jaw-dropping destruction in Sanibel and elsewhere.
A handful of restaurants and bars have reopened in Fort Myers, giving an illusion of normalcy amid downed trees and shattered storefronts.
Before hitting Florida, Ian plunged all of Cuba into darkness after shutting down the island’s power grid.
Electricity is gradually returning, mainly in Havana, but many homes remain without power.
A new storm in the Pacific, Hurricane Orlene, intensified to Category 2 strength off the coast of Mexico, where it was expected to make landfall in the coming days.
Human-induced climate change is driving more severe weather events across the world, scientists say.