By ADRIANA GOMEZ-LICON
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) — Rescuers launched boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to rescue thousands of Florida residents trapped after Hurricane Ian destroyed homes and businesses and left millions in the dark.
The devastation began to come into focus a day after Ian made landfall in Florida as one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the United States. The storm flooded homes on both coasts of the state, severed the only bridge to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out power to 2.67 million Florida homes and businesses, nearly a quarter of utility customers. At least one man was confirmed dead.
“We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told a news conference. “The amount of water that has risen and is likely to continue to rise today even as the storm passes is basically a 500-year flood event.”
Although it was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center said storm surge and flooding rains remained a threat as Ian crept across the Florida peninsula and emerged in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Canaveral. Forecasters predicted that Ian would regain some strength as it turned north.
A hurricane warning was issued for the coast of South Carolina, where the storm was expected to make landfall again, having already hit Cuba and Florida.
Sheriffs in Southwest Florida said 911 centers were flooded with thousands of stranded callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. The U.S. Coast Guard began rescue efforts hours before dawn on barrier islands near where Ian struck, DeSantis said. More than 800 members of federal urban search and rescue teams were also in the area.
In the Orlando area, Orange County firefighters used boats to reach people in a flooded neighborhood. A photo the department posted on Twitter showed a firefighter carrying a person in his arms through knee-deep water. At one area nursing home, patients were carried on stretchers over floodwaters to a waiting bus.
Firefighters on boats and National Guard soldiers in a tall truck rescued Joseph Agboona and his neighbors after water rose to the windows of his Orlando home.
“We’re happy to get out,” said Agboona, who grabbed two bags of belongings, not knowing what will be left when he eventually returns. “It was very, very bad.”
In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours Wednesday holding a dining room table against their patio door, fearing the storm raging outside was “tearing our house apart.”
“I was scared,” Bartley said. “What we heard was shingles and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house.”
She said her 4-year-old daughter grabbed her hand and said, “I’m scared too, but it’s going to be okay.” The girl was right. The storm ripped away patio screens and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but left the roof intact and her family unharmed.
Authorities confirmed at least one death in Florida — a 72-year-old Deltona man who fell into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. Two other storm deaths were reported in Cuba.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office struggled to respond to thousands of 911 calls, but many roads and bridges in Fort Myers and the surrounding area were impassable.
“It devastated us,” Marceno told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “We still can’t access many of the people who are in need.”
Emergency crews sawed through fallen trees to reach stranded people. Many in the hardest hit areas were unable to call for help due to power and cell phone outages.
“Portable towers are on the way to cell service. Chances are your loved ones won’t have a way to contact you,” said the sheriff’s office in Collier County, which includes Naples. “We can tell you when daylight reveals the aftermath, it will be a hard day.”
Part of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the ocean, cutting off access to the barrier island, where 6,300 people normally live. It was not known how many followed orders to evacuate, but Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Patrick Fuller expressed cautious optimism that worst-case scenarios may not have materialized.
No deaths or injuries have been confirmed in the county, and overflights of barrier islands show that “the integrity of the homes is far better than we expected,” Fuller said.
South of Sanibel Island, the historic Naples Pier was destroyed and even the pilings underneath were ripped out as towering waves crashed over the structure. “Right now there is no pier,” said Penny Taylor, a Collier County commissioner.
In Port Charlotte, a hospital’s emergency room flooded and strong winds tore off part of the roof, sending water gushing into the intensive care unit. The sickest patients – some on ventilators – were crowded onto the middle two floors as staff prepared for the arrival of storm victims, said Dr. Birgit Bodine from HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital.
The Florida Highway Patrol closed the Florida Turnpike in the Orlando area and said the main artery in the middle of the state will remain closed until the water recedes.
Ian hit Florida as a monstrous Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph (241 km/h), tying it for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the United States
Even after weakening, Ian’s tropical storm force winds still reached 415 miles (667 kilometers) from the center. Forecasters predicted the Atlantic Ocean would strengthen it into a Category 1 hurricane before it makes landfall Friday in South Carolina.
The National Hurricane Center warned of storm surges of 6 feet (1.83 meters) or more possible from Daytona Beach, Florida, north of Charleston, South Carolina. Rainfall of up to 8 inches (20.32 centimeters) threatened flooding in the Carolinas and Virginia.
“It doesn’t matter what the intensity of the storm is. We still expect quite a bit of rainfall,” said Robbie Berg, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, in an interview with The Associated Press.
The US Coast Guard launched a search and rescue mission for 23 people after a boat carrying Cuban migrants sank in stormy weather east of Key West on Wednesday. It found three survivors and four others swam ashore, the US Border Patrol said. Aircrews continued to search for possibly 20 remaining migrants.
Associated Press contributors include Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein and Aamer Madhani in Washington; Bobby Caina Calvan in New York; and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio.