The full measure of Hurricane Ian‘s coast-to-coast trail of death and devastation in Florida was revealed as dawn broke Friday, including at least 19 deaths, countless homes washed out to sea, and millions without power in what may go down as the most devastating natural disaster in Sunshine State history.
Some 42,000 workers were scrambling Friday to restore power to as many as 2.6 million businesses and homes. The death toll is expected to rise as emergency management personnel survey Gulf Coast communities including Lee and Charlotte counties, which absorbed the brunt of the powerful storm.
“This is going to be a storm we talk about for years to come,” National Weather Service Director Ken Graham said.
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who called the hurricane a “500-year event,” said Thursday night that he personally surveyed damage in Charlotte County and Lee County and came away stunned.
“Some of the damage was indescribable,” DeSantis said. “The most significant damage I saw was on Fort Myers Beach. Some of the homes were wiped out, some were just concrete slabs.”
Some 200 people have been rescued by the Fort Myers Fire Department, according to Mayor Kevin Anderson, who said there were no known fatalities in his city so far. In Lee County, more than 1,000 patients were evacuated from hospitals after the water supply was cut off, and more evacuations were taking place in nursing homes and even prisons.
Islands off the Gulf Coast were left isolated after bridges and causeways were damaged or washed away entirely. At least two people were killed on Sanibel island, and Chip Farrar, who lives on the island of Matlacha, told CNN it was completely cut off from the mainland.
Some early estimates have put damage to the Tampa area alone at $16 billion. The Category 4 hurricane was especially devastating because of its unusually large, 35-mile wide eye and the amount of rainfall it brought, measured at over 14 inches in one 12-hour span. The torrential rains and contributed to historic flooding in creeks and rivers in central and northern Florida.
Experts said Ian will go down as one of the strongest storms in Florida history. Colorado State University meteorologist and hurricane expert Philip Klotzbach said the only hurricanes that struck the mainland directly and were more powerful were Michael in 2018, Andrew in 1992 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
Ian blew out into the Atlantic, only to regroup as a Category 1 storm with 85-mph winds and begin barreling toward the South Carolina coast early Friday. A hurricane warning was issued from the Savannah River at the Georgia-South Carolina state line to Cape Fear, North Carolina.
Officials expect it to make landfall Friday afternoon between Charleston and Myrtle Beach, bringing storm surges of up to seven feet and as much as a foot of rain.
“This is a dangerous storm that will bring high winds and a lot of water,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted. “Be smart, make good decisions, check on your loved ones, and stay safe.”