WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden said Thursday Hurricane Ian could be Florida's deadliest, adding he would travel to the state when appropriate.
"This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida's history. The numbers are still unclear, but we're hearing early reports of what may be a substantial loss of life," Mr Biden said, during a visit to Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington.
"Many families are hurting," he added. "Our entire country hurts with them."
The extent of Ian’s destruction became clearer Thursday, as people across south-western Florida – left without electricity, drinking water or inhabitable homes – began to assess the damage and gird for what Governor Ron DeSantis said would be a yearslong recovery.
The scale of the wreckage is staggering, even to Florida residents who have survived and rebuilt after other powerful hurricanes.
The storm pulverised roads, toppled trees, gutted downtown storefronts and set cars afloat, leaving a soggy scar of ruined homes and businesses from the coastal cities of Naples and Fort Myers to inland communities around Orlando.
Although state officials have not released a death toll by late in the day, Mr DeSantis said Thursday night that “we absolutely expect” to learn of storm-related fatalities, as rescuers work through a backlog of 911 calls and scour the most devastated neighbourhoods.
Homes crushed in chaotic jumble
In hard-hit Charlotte County, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department confirmed multiple deaths but did not have a firm figure.
The authorities in Sarasota County were investigating two possible storm-related deaths, a sheriff’s spokesman said.
A 72-year-old man in Deltona in central Florida died after he went outside during the storm to drain his pool.
More than 500 people in Charlotte and Lee Counties had been rescued Thursday, the Florida Division of Emergency Management said; the small town of Fort Myers Beach, on a barrier island just off the coast, appeared decimated.
More than 2.3 million homes and businesses in Florida remained without power, according to tracking website PowerOutage.us.
Photos from several areas of the state showed homes crunched together in a chaotic jumble, or smashed into what looked like toothpicks. Fishing boats and pleasure cruisers had been hurled onto the ground as if they were bathtub toys.
The streets were a perilous obstacle course of toppled trees and downed wires.
In North Fort Myers, where Ms Marion Burkholder, 84, survived the storm by clambering into a dinghy inside a neighbour’s screened-in porch and floating up with the rising waters, Thursday brought dreaded news.
Her carpets were sopping and her floors were covered with a dark-brown liquid. Her fridge lay on its side.
“Everything floated,” said Ms Marvis Long, 96, who lives nearby. “The water was coming in just like waves in here.”
Mayors, sheriffs and other officials surveying the damage struggled to even describe its scope.
The sheriff in Volusia County, near Orlando on the state’s east coast, said by text message that the coastal county was seeing “unprecedented flooding”.
Mr DeSantis said there has been a “biblical” storm surge on Sanibel Island, normally a tourist haven of gleaming beaches and mangroves south-west of Fort Myers.
“The damage that was done has been historic,” he said in a briefing Thursday. “We’ve never seen a flood event like this. We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude.”
Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina were bracing for impact as Ian – which weakened to a tropical storm during its trek across Florida – returned to hurricane strength after moving into the Atlantic Ocean, with maximum sustained wind speeds of 120 kmh.
The storm was forecast to make landfall again about 2 pm ET on Friday (2am, Saturday, in Singapore) north of Charleston.
A hurricane warning was in effect for hundreds of kilometres of coastline from the South Carolina-Georgia border north to Cape Fear, North Carolina.
Ian was expected to bring potential life-threatening storm surges and possible tornadoes to the region, the National Weather Service said.
In South Carolina, Mercedes Benz, Boeing and the seaports that support manufacturers will suspend operations Friday.
Charleston is particularly at risk, according to a city-commissioned report released in November 2020, which found about 90 per cent of all residential properties were vulnerable to storm surge flooding.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper urged residents to “take necessary precautions”, warning of possible flooding, landslides and tornadoes.
“This storm is still dangerous,” Mr Cooper said. REUTERS, NYTIMES