The U.S. Coast Guard has rescued nearly two dozen people in Florida as of Thursday morning following the devastation from Hurricane Ian, with more rescues expected throughout the day.
Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday on the state’s Gulf Coast at nearly the strength of a Category 5 storm. With winds exceeding 150 miles per hour, the system was tied for the fourth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the Sunshine State, according to data from Colorado State University meteorologist Philip Klotzbach.
Coast Guard Deputy Commandant Peter Gautier remarked during an interview with Fox News that personnel have already rescued 23 people.
“The top priority… is saving lives,” Gautier explained. “In the days leading up to the storm’s landfall, the Coast Guard moved all its cutters, aircraft, and small boats out of the area so that we could be positioned to bring those back in. That’s happening right now as we speak.”
“We expect that to grow as the day goes on,” he added, noting that the Coast Guard is primarily relying upon helicopters while local law enforcement officers use shallow boats.
Multiple regions of Florida over which the storm has passed — including Hardee County, DeSoto County, and Lee County — are experiencing power outage rates approaching 100%. More than 2.5 million homes and businesses in the state were left without electricity on Thursday morning as utility companies began work to repair the state’s grid. Most outages are concentrated in central Florida, with minimal outages in the western part of the state and some outages in the Miami area.
Some portions of western Florida experienced storm surges as high as 18 feet, presenting difficulties to officials attempting to coordinate rescue efforts. “You start by eyeball. You do a very quick search from the air, and you look and see folks on roofs who need assistance,” Gautier said of the rescue process. “We need to cross-reference streets which aren’t recognizable when communities are flooded.”
Gautier, who aided in the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey, characterized Hurricane Ian as “up there” in terms of severity. “What we haven’t seen traditionally is the combination of massive storm surge from the wind-driven waves and water coming from the ocean and up into the rivers,” he said, also referencing “the historic amount of rain in such a short period of time.”
As of Thursday morning, winds had weakened to 65 miles per hour, rendering Hurricane Ian a tropical storm. According to a forecast from the National Hurricane Center, however, the storm has remained more powerful than initial estimates, threatening South Carolina and Georgia as winds gain speed and the system becomes “a hurricane again.”
“Ian has stubbornly gone east of the track forecast for the past couple of days and has moved back over water faster than expected,” the agency said. “A mid-level shortwave rough moving southward across the southern United States should turn Ian northward overnight and north-northwestward on Saturday.”
Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) announced that he requested complete disaster reimbursement from the federal government to ensure that Florida can “quickly move forward into response and recovery.” The state government has mobilized 42,000 linemen, 7,000 National Guardsmen, and 179 aircraft to handle the hurricane response.