Ian Leaves Over 50 Dead as Focus Turns to Rescue, Recovery

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Dozens of Florida residents evacuated their flooded and shattered homes by boat and plane on Saturday as rescue workers continued to search for survivors after Hurricane Ian, while authorities in South Carolina and North Carolina began taking inventory of their homes Losses.

The death toll from the storm, one of the strongest hurricanes by wind speed to ever hit the United States, rose to more than four dozen, with 47 deaths confirmed in Florida, four in North Carolina and three deaths in Cuba. The storm weakened on Saturday as it rolled into the mid-Atlantic, but not before washing out bridges and piers, hurling massive boats into buildings ashore and shearing roofs off homes, leaving hundreds of thousands without power.

The bulk of the confirmed deaths in Florida were primarily due to drowning in storm water, but others were due to Ian’s tragic aftermath. An elderly couple died after their oxygen equipment turned off due to a power outage, authorities said.

As of Saturday, more than 1,000 people had been rescued from flooded areas on Florida’s southwest coast alone, Daniel Hokanson, a four-star general and chief of the National Guard, told The Associated Press as he flew to Florida.

Later that evening, the White House announced that President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden would travel to Florida on Wednesday. Further details of Biden’s visit were not immediately released.

Chris Schnapp was at the Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers on Saturday waiting to see if her 83-year-old mother-in-law had been evacuated from Sanibel Island. A pontoon boat had just arrived from the island with a load of passengers—suitcases and animals in tow—but Schnapp’s mother-in-law wasn’t among them.

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“She stayed on the island. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law own two shops over there. They were evacuated. She didn’t want to leave,” Schnapp said. Now, she said, she wasn’t sure if her mother-in-law was still on the island or had been taken to a shelter somewhere.

Hurricane Ian
A damaged trailer park after Hurricane Ian passed the area on October 1, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)

Homes were blown to pieces and boats littered streets on Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, when a volunteer rescue group went door-to-door on Saturday, asking isolated residents if they wanted to be evacuated. Residents described the horror of being trapped in their homes as the waters continued to rise.

“The water just kept pounding on the house and we watched, boats, houses — we watched everything fly by,” said Joe Conforti, fighting back tears. He said that if his wife hadn’t suggested standing on a table to avoid the rising water, he wouldn’t have been able to: “I started to lose sensitivity because when the water is in front of your door and it’s splashing at the door and you see how fast it moves, there’s no way you’ll survive that.”

River flooding at times posed a major challenge to rescue and supply efforts. The Myakka River washed over a section of Interstate 75, forcing a traffic-calming closure of the freeway Saturday. It’s a key corridor connecting Tampa in the north with the hardest-hit region of southwest Florida, which stretches through Port Charlotte and Fort Myers. Later Saturday, state officials said water levels had receded enough for I-75 to fully reopen.

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While rising water in Florida’s southwestern rivers has peaked or is about to peak, levels are not expected to drop significantly for days, said weather forecaster Tyler Fleming of the National Weather Service in Tampa.

Elsewhere, Pawleys Island in South Carolina — a beach community about 70 miles from Charleston — was among the hardest-hit locations. Power remained out on at least half of the island on Saturday.

Hurricane Ian
A child runs under a fallen tree from the effects of Hurricane Ian on September 30, 2022 in Charleston, SC. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Eddie Wilder, who has been coming to Pawleys Island for more than six decades, said Friday’s storm was “insane”. He said waves of up to 25 feet washed away the local pier – a landmark.

“We watched it hit the pier and watched the pier go away,” said Wilder, whose home 30 feet above the ocean stayed dry inside. “We watched it crumble and watched it float by with an American flag.”

Pawleys Pier was one of at least four piers along the South Carolina coast destroyed by high winds and rain. Meanwhile, the Intracoastal Waterway was littered with the remains of several boathouses that had been knocked off their pilings.

John Joseph, whose father built the family’s beige beach house in 1962, said Saturday he was delighted to be returning from Georgetown – which took a direct hit. He found his home on Pawleys Island completely intact.

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“Thank God those walls are still here and we feel very blessed that this is the worst,” he said of sand that was swept under his home. “What happened in Florida — my goodness, God bless us. If we had a Category 4 I wouldn’t be here.”

In North Carolina, the storm claimed four lives and mostly destroyed trees and power lines, leaving over 280,000 people across the state without power at one point Saturday morning, officials said. The outages fell sharply hours later after crews worked to restore power.

Two of the North Carolina deaths were related to storm-related vehicle accidents, while officials said a man also drowned when his truck crashed into a swamp and another man was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage.

Charter boat Captain Ryan Kane inspects damage to two boats Saturday at the Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers. The storm surge drove several boats and a dock ashore. He said the boat he owns was totally wrecked so he cannot use it to rescue people. Well, he said, it would be a long time before he would start chartering angling clients again.

“There’s a hole in the hull. Water got into the engines. It all took water,” he said, adding, “You know boats should be in the water, not in parking lots.”

By Rebecca Santana and Meg Kinnard

The Associated Press