ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Ian carved a path of destruction across Florida, trapping people in flooded homes, cutting off the only bridge to a barrier island, damaging a hospital from above and below, and knocking out power to 2.5 million people as it dumped rain over a huge area on Thursday.
One of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the United States threatened catastrophic flooding around the state. Ian’s tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 415 miles (665 km), drenching much of Florida and the southeastern Atlantic coast.
Authorities confirmed at least one storm death in Florida — a 72-year-old man in Deltona who fell into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said.
Another Florida sheriff said he believes the death toll would be “in the hundreds.” Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that roads and bridges remained impassable, stranding thousands of people calling 911 to be rescued in the county that includes Fort Myers.
“It crushed us,” Marceno said. “We still cannot access many of the people that are in need.”
Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson told NBC’s “Today” that he had not been told of any deaths in the city, but Ian by far is the worst storm he’s witnessed since the 1970s.
“Watching the water from my condo in the heart of downtown, watching that water rise and just flood out all the stores on the first floor, it was heartbreaking,” Anderson said.
A chunk of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the sea, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people normally live. How many heeded mandatory evacuation orders before the storm surge washed over the island was impossible to know.
Emergency crews sawed through toppled trees to reach people in flooded homes, but with no electricity and virtually no cell service, it was impossible for many people to call for help from the hardest hit coastal areas where the surge came in.
“Portable towers are on the way for cell service. Chances are your loved ones do not have the ability to contact you,” said the sheriff’s office in Collier County, which includes Naples. “We can tell you as daylight reveals the aftermath, it’s going to be a hard day.”
In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours fearing the storm would blow their house apart. She and her husband pushed their dining room table against a sliding patio door to brace it against fierce winds, and he held it in place for two hours.
“I was terrified,” Bartley said. “What we heard was the shingles and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house…. It was happening for hours. We just assumed that it was tearing our house apart.”
As the storm raged outside, she said, her 4-year-old daughter grabbed her hand and said: “I’m scared too, but it’s going to be OK.”
Hurricane Ian turned streets into rivers and blew down trees as it slammed into southwest Florida on Wednesday with 150 mph (241 kph) winds. Ian’s strength at landfall was Category 4, tying it for the fifth-strongest hurricane, when measured by wind speed, ever to strike the U.S.
Ian’s center came ashore more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area from its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
The National Hurricane Center said Ian became a tropical storm over land early Thursday and was expected to regain near-hurricane strength after emerging over Atlantic waters near the Kennedy Space Center later in the day, with South Carolina in its sights for a second U.S. landfall.
A stretch of the Gulf Coast remained under ocean water: “Severe and life-threatening storm surge inundation of 8 to 10 feet above ground level along with destructive waves is ongoing along the southwest Florida coastline from Englewood to Bonita Beach, including Charlotte Harbor,” the center said Thursday.