FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – With the death toll from Hurricane Ian rising and hundreds of thousands of people without power in Florida and the Carolinas, U.S. officials vowed Sunday to unleash a massive amount of federal disaster aid as crews scrambled to rescue people stranded by the storm.
Days after Ian tore through central Florida and carved a deadly path of destruction into the Carolinas, water levels continued to rise in some flooded areas, flooding homes and streets that were passable just a day or two earlier.
With branches strewn over the grounds of St. Hillary’s Episcopal Church in Ft. Myers, the Rev. Charles Cannon acknowledged the tremendous loss during his Sunday sermon, but also gave thanks for what was left. It included the church’s stained glass windows and tower.
“People think they’ve lost everything, but you haven’t lost everything if you haven’t lost yourself,” he said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Arcadia on Sunday afternoon, about 30 miles inland from where Ian made landfall. Rural areas did not receive the storm surge experienced by coastal communities, but standing water from flooding remained for four days after the storm.
“This is such a big storm that brought so much water that you basically have what has been a 500-year flood,” DeSantis said.
At least 68 people are confirmed dead: 61 in Florida, four in North Carolina and three in Cuba.
About 750,000 Florida homes and businesses were still without power Sunday, down from a peak of 2.6 million.
The weakened storm continued to wreak havoc as it drifted north, with remnants forming a nor’easter expected to dump rain on parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, weather officials said.
In Virginia, rainfall on the already flooded Chesapeake Bay could lead to the most significant tidal flooding in the Hampton Roads region in 10 to 15 years, said Cody Poche, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. A handful of coastal Virginia school districts canceled classes Monday, and local officials urged residents to prepare.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the federal government is focusing first on the victims in Florida, which took the brunt of one of the strongest storms to make landfall in the United States. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden plan to visit Florida on Wednesday.
Flooded roads and washed-out bridges to barrier islands left many people isolated due to limited mobile service and a lack of basic amenities such as water, electricity and internet. Officials warned that the situation in many areas is not expected to improve for several days because the rain that fell has nowhere to go.
Criswell told “Fox News Sunday” that the federal government, including the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense, had moved into position “the largest amount of search and rescue assets that I think we’ve ever put in place before.”
Still, she warned that dangers remain.
“We’re seeing so many more injuries and sometimes more fatalities after the storm,” Criswell said. “Standing water brings all kinds of dangers with it — it has debris, it can have power lines.”
More than 1,600 people have been rescued across the state, according to the Florida Emergency Management Agency.
In rural Seminole County, north of Orlando, residents donned waders, boots and bug spray to paddle to their flooded homes Sunday.
Ben Bertat found 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water in his house on Lake Harney after kayaking there.
“I think it’s going to get worse because all this water is going to the lake,” Bertat said, pointing to the water flooding a nearby road. “With soil saturation, this whole swamp is full and it just can’t hold any more water. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get any lower.”
Gabriel Madling kayaked through several meters of water on his street and delivered sandbags to ward off water that had crept up to his doorstep.
“My home is close to underwater,” Madling said. “Right now I’m just going to sandbag as much as I can and hope and pray.”
The National Guard and Coast Guard flew helicopters to Florida’s barrier islands to rescue people. On Sanibel Island, the lone bridge to the crescent-shaped island collapsed, cutting off car access for its 6,300 residents.
An aerial photo of the Mad Hatter Restaurant on Sanibel posted on social media shows a largely empty stretch of sand where the restaurant used to be.
“The Mad Hatter Restaurant is unfortunately out at sea right now,” the restaurant’s Facebook page says, adding that staff are all safe. “The best news from this devastating scene is that there is still land for us to rebuild.”
DeSantis said the state will begin building a temporary structure this week to restore vehicle access to Pine Island, the largest of Southwest Florida’s barrier islands destroyed by the storm.
“It’s not going to be a full bridge, you’re going to have to drive over it probably at 5 miles an hour or something, but at least it’s going to let people get in and out of the island with their vehicles,” DeSantis said.
Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson on Sunday defended Lee County officials from accusations that they had been slow to order evacuations Tuesday ahead of the storm, a day later than some other counties in the area.
“Hurricane season warnings start in June. So there’s a certain level of personal responsibility here. I think the municipality did the right thing. The thing is, a certain percentage of people won’t listen to the warnings regardless,” Anderson said on CBS- the show “Face the Nation.”
In North Carolina, the storm brought down trees and power lines. Two of the four deaths in the state were from storm-related vehicle crashes, and the others involved a man who drowned when his truck crashed into a swamp and another was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage.
Associated Press reporters Rebecca Santana in Ft. Myers; Brendan Farrington and Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee; David Fischer in Miami; Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Va.; and Richard Lardner in Washington contributed to this report.
For more AP coverage of Hurricane Ian: https://apnews.com/hub/hurricanes