Punta Gorda, Fla. — Rescuers manned boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to save thousands of Floridians trapped in flooded homes and broken buildings as Hurricane Ian plowed into the Atlantic Ocean and churned toward another landfall in South Carolina.
Hours after weakening to a tropical storm as it crossed the Florida peninsula, Ian regained hurricane strength Thursday evening after emerging over the Atlantic Ocean. The National Hurricane Center predicted the earthquake would hit South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane on Friday.
Devastation focused on Florida a day after Ian made landfall as a monster Category 4 hurricane and one of the most powerful storms to hit the US, destroying a historic waterfront pier and knocking out power to 2.67 million Florida homes and businesses – nearly a quarter of utility customers.
At least one death was confirmed in Florida, while two more were reported dead in Cuba after a hurricane hit the island on Tuesday.
Aerial photographs of the Fort Myers area, a few miles west of where Ian made landfall, showed homes torn from their slabs and piled up in broken rubble. Businesses near the coast were completely destroyed and destroyed. Broken docks floated at odd angles beside damaged boats, and fires engulfed lots where houses once stood.
“I don’t know how anyone survived there,” said William Goodson, standing in the wreckage of the mobile home park in Fort Myers Beach where he lived for 11 years.
The tornado destroyed about 60 homes in the park, many of which, including Goodson’s single-wide home, were destroyed or beyond repair. Wading through waist-deep water, Goodson and his son ran two trash cans into which he could salvage his belongings — a portable air conditioner, some tools and a baseball bat.
The road to Fort Myers was littered with broken trees, boat trailers and other debris. Cars were left on the road after the storm flooded their engines.
“We’ve never seen a storm of this intensity,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news conference. “Water levels are rising and will continue to rise today as the storm passes, it’s basically a 500-year flood event.”
After leaving Florida as a tropical storm on Thursday and entering the Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Canaveral, Ian re-entered the hurricane system with sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kmph). The hurricane center predicted it would continue to strengthen before hitting South Carolina on Friday, but would still remain a Category 1 storm.
A hurricane warning was issued for the South Carolina coast and extended to Cape Fear on the southeastern coast of North Carolina. With tropical-storm-force winds reaching 415 miles (667 kilometers) from its center, Ian was forecast to produce a storm surge of 5 feet (1.5 meters) along coastal areas in Georgia and the Carolinas. 8 inches (20.32 centimeters) of rain created a flood threat from South Carolina to Virginia.
Sheriffs in Southwest Florida said 911 centers were overwhelmed by thousands of stranded callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. The U.S. Coast Guard began rescue efforts hours before daylight on the barrier islands near where Ian hit, DeSantis said. More than 800 members of the Federal Urban Search and Rescue Team were also in the area.
In the Orlando area, Orange County firefighters used boats to reach people in flooded areas. A photo posted by the department on Twitter shows a firefighter carrying someone in his arms through knee-deep water. At area nursing homes, patients were carried on stretchers through floodwaters to waiting buses.
Joseph Agbuna is among those released. “We’re glad to get out,” he said, grabbing two bags as water rose to the windows of his Orlando home. “It was very, very bad.”
In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours holding a dining table in front of their patio door, fearing the storm outside was “tearing our house apart.”
“I was scared,” Bartley said. “What we heard was jewelry and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house.”
The storm tore down patio curtains and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but the roof remained intact and her family was unharmed.
In Fort Myers, some people left the shelter Thursday afternoon to return home. Long lines formed at gas stations and Home Depot opened, admitting a few customers at a time.
Frank Pino was at the back of the line, with about 100 people in front of him.
“I hope they leave something,” Pino said, “because I need almost everything.”
Officials confirmed at least one death in Florida — a 72-year-old man from Deltona who fell into a canal while using a hose to remove a bridge during heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. Two more storms killed in Cuba.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office was scrambling to respond to thousands of 911 calls in the Fort Myers area, but many roads and bridges were impassable.
Emergency workers are sawing through broken trees to reach trapped people. Many people in the worst-hit areas were unable to call for help due to power and cellular outages.
A section of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the sea, blocking access to the barrier island, home to 6,300 people. It was not known how many followed evacuation orders, but Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Patrick Fuller expressed cautious optimism.
No deaths or injuries have been confirmed in the county, and flyovers of the barrier islands show “the integrity of the homes is much better than we expected,” Fuller said.
A historic beach pier in Naples, south of Sanibel Island, was destroyed, with the rubble beneath it torn apart. “Right now, there’s no pier,” said Penny Taylor, a Collier County commissioner.
In Port Charlotte, a hospital emergency room was flooded, and strong winds ripped off part of the roof and flooded the intensive care unit. The sickest patients — some on ventilators — crowded the middle two floors as staff prepared to bring in storm victims, said Dr. HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital. Birgit Bodine said.
Ian hit Florida with 150 mph (241 kph) winds, which tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the United States.
While scientists generally avoid blaming climate change for specific storms without detailed analysis, Ian’s watery destruction fits what scientists predict for a warmer world: stronger and wetter hurricanes, though not necessarily more of them.
“This business about extreme, extreme rainfall is what we expect from climate change,” said MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel. “We’re going to see more storms like Ian.”
Associated Press contributors include Terry Spencer and Tim Reynolds in Fort Myers; Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Frieda Frisaro in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington; and Bobby Kaina Calvan from New York.