Recently homeless Floridians struggle to restart their lives as rescue workers struggle to find any remaining signs of life among the wreckage of Hurricane Ian.
In some cases, emergency workers juggle both unimaginable tasks.
“Some of the guys on Pine Island, they lost everything, but they’re doing what they can,” said emergency physician Dr. Ben Abo, who was preparing to join first responders on a rescue mission Sunday near decimated Sanibel Island and Pine Island.
“It brings tears to my eyes to see how hard they work.”
But because Hurricane Ian washed out Sanibel Island’s lonely path to mainland Florida, “we’re helicoptering in and doing our net search,” Abo said.
More than 1,100 people have been rescued from flooded parts of southwest and central Florida since Ian barreled into the state last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said.
But as the search for survivors continues, rescuers also find more bodies. Officials say at least 67 people were killed by Ian in Florida as it engulfed homes in furiously surging waters.
Four people were also killed in storm-related incidents in North Carolina as Ian swirled up the coast, officials said.
Those lucky enough to survive face an arduous road to recovery. About 900,000 homes, businesses and other customers in Florida were still without power as of early Sunday morning, according to PowerOutage.us. More than 30,000 remained in the dark in North Carolina.
Hurricane Ian could be the costliest storm in Florida history, devastating communities from the state’s west coast to inland cities like Orlando.
But the most severe lashing occurred in southwestern coastal cities such as Fort Myers and Naples, where some neighborhoods were wiped out.
“We fly and we operate in areas that are unrecognizable,” said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brendan McPherson.
“There are no road signs. They don’t look like they used to look. Buildings that were once benchmarks in the community are no longer there.”
Many of the Ian-related deaths have been reported in southwest Florida’s Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, where at least 35 people died.
Local officials are facing criticism over whether mandatory evacuations in Lee County should have been issued earlier.
Officials there did not order evacuations until less than 24 hours before the storm made landfall, and a day after several neighboring counties issued their orders.
DeSantis defended the timing of Lee County’s orders, saying they were issued as soon as the storm’s projected path shifted south, putting the area in Ian’s crosshairs.
“As soon as we saw the pattern shift northeast, we did exactly what we could to encourage people to” evacuate, Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane said Sunday.
“I’m just disappointed that so many people didn’t go to the shelter because they’re open.”
Ruane called the reporting of a possible delay in issuing a mandatory evacuation “inaccurate.” He said the county did what it had to do without presenting any evidence that the reporting was inaccurate.
“I think the most important thing that most people need to understand is that we opened 15 shelters. During Irma, there were 60,000 people in our shelters. There are 4,000 people in the shelters right now,” Ruane said Sunday.
“Unfortunately, people got complacent … As far as I’m concerned, the shelters were open, they had the ability, they had all day Tuesday, they had a good part of Wednesday when the storm was coming down — they had the ability to (go on a shelter).”
The U.S. Coast Guard made plans to evacuate people from Lee County’s Pine Island on Sunday, according to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
In addition to the 35 deaths in Lee County, Hurricane Ian also contributed to the deaths of 12 people in Charlotte County, eight in Collier County, five in Volusia County, three in Sarasota County and one each in Polk, Lake, Hendry and Manatee counties , officials said.
President Joe Biden continued to pledge federal aid to Florida, saying Hurricane Ian “will likely be among the worst … in the nation’s history.”
The president and first lady Jill Biden are set to travel to Puerto Rico on Monday to survey damage from Hurricane Fiona, then head to Florida on Wednesday.
After Hurricane Ian completed its devastating sweep across Florida, residents tried to venture back to their damaged or destroyed homes, sifting through debris.
But residents of Sanibel and Captiva islands were cut off from the Florida mainland after parts of a causeway were destroyed by the storm, leaving boats and helicopters as their only options.
Civilian volunteers rushed to help residents on Sanibel, where some homes were obliterated.
Andy Boyle was on Sanibel Island when the hurricane hit. He said he lost his home and two cars but feels lucky to be alive.
“A lot of people have very expensive, well-built homes on Sanibel, and they felt that with their multi-million dollar houses built like fortresses, they would be OK,” he said.
Boyle was riding out the storm at home when the dining room roof collapsed. “That’s when we started to get concerned,” he said.
He described seeing National Guard planes down outside his house the next day and seeing the scenes of devastation around the island.
“When you go to the east end of the island, there’s just a lot of destruction. The houses around the lighthouse are all gone. When you go to the west end of the island, the old restaurants up there, they’re all gone. The street that goes to Captiva, is now a beach,” Boyle said.
Residents were also evacuated from the Hidden River area of Sarasota County after a compromised levee threatened to flood homes, the sheriff’s office said Saturday.
Further complicating recovery is the lack of electricity and patchy communications in affected areas.
It could take up to a week starting Sunday for power to be restored in storm-damaged counties, said Eric Silagy, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light Company.
And some customers may not be back online for “weeks or months” because some buildings with structural damage must undergo safety inspections.
About 65% of all power outages in Florida from the storm had been restored as of early Sunday, according to PowerOutage.us.
Florida is too is working with Elon Musk and the Starlink satellite to help restore communications in the state, according to DeSantis.
“They are placing these Starlink satellites to provide good coverage in Southwest Florida and other affected areas,” DeSantis said.
Emergency responders in Lee County will be among those receiving Starlink devices.
In Charlotte County, residents are “facing a tragedy” without homes, electricity or water supply, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Claudette Smith said.
“We need everything. We need all hands on deck,” Smith told CNN Friday. “The people who have come to our aid have been tremendously helpful, but we need everything.”
Hear why this expert believes the damage from Hurricane Ian could have been prevented
Hurricane Ian may have caused as much as $47 billion in insured losses in Florida, according to an estimate by real estate research firm CoreLogic. That could make it the costliest storm in state history.
After hitting Florida, Ian made its second landfall in the United States near Georgetown, South Carolina, on Friday afternoon as a Category 1 hurricane.
In North Carolina, the four storm-related deaths include a man who drowned when his truck drove into a flooded swamp; two people who died in separate crashes; and a man who died of carbon monoxide poisoning after running a generator in a closed garage, according to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.
No deaths have been reported in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said Saturday.
The storm has flooded homes and submerged vehicles along South Carolina’s coastline. Two piers — one on Pawleys Island and another in North Myrtle Beach — partially collapsed as strong winds pushed the water up even higher.
Edgar Stephens, who manages Cherry Grove Pier in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was standing yards away when a 100-foot section from the center of the pier plunged into the ocean.
Stephens said the Cherry Grove Pier is a staple for community members and tourists alike.
“We’re a destination,” he said, “not just a fishing pier.”