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Hurricane Ian death toll climbing as Floridians begin to regroup, tell survival tales

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden plan to view the devastation Wednesday; hundreds of thousands still without power, clean water

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Responders from the de Moya Group survey damage to the bridge leading to Pine Island in Matlacha, Fla.

Responders from the de Moya Group survey damage to the bridge leading to Pine Island, to start building temporary access to the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

Search teams are recovering the bodies of those who died as Hurricane Ian ripped through communities last week, destroying entire Florida neighborhoods with high winds and flooding that has not entirely receded even days later.

Dozens died, though exact numbers are unclear. As of Monday morning, CNN reported “at least 88 people” died in the hurricane in Florida. USA Today reported 68 deaths. NBC News said 87 bodies, including 83 in Florida and four in North Carolina, had been recovered in FEMA’s “largest ever search and rescue effort.” NBC also said the number will likely rise as “additional deaths were investigated for possible ties to last week’s storm.” The New York Times also put the death toll at “more than 80” so far.

Southwestern Florida was particularly hard hit, with at least 42 of the deaths occurring in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Sanibel Island.

Sunday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said more than 1,600 people had been rescued in southwest and central Florida since Hurricane Ian passed through. “There’s more urban search and rescue teams in Florida now than in any one place in American history since Sept. 11,’’ he said during a media briefing.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden announced they will travel to the devastated areas this week, visiting Puerto Rico Monday and Florida Wednesday.

PowerOutage.us says more than 600,000 homes and businesses still lack power in Florida as of Monday morning. In Puerto Rico, hit earlier by Hurricane Fiona, 127,000 customers still lack power.

Hurricane Fiona killed 25 people in Puerto Rico, according to NBC News.

The Florida Health Department said some communities lack clean tap water and there are just under 150 advisories counseling residents to boil water before drinking it or using it to cook, issued across two dozen counties.

Survival and loss

Stories of the devastation abound.

“In Naples, Hank DeWolf’s 4,000-pound boat dock was carried through a condo complex by the powerful hurricane, landing in his neighbor’s yard. And the water brought someone’s car into his own backyard. He doesn’t know who it belongs to or how to remove it,” CNN reported.

People told the story of Stan Pentz, who lived in Fort Myers. He texted his daughter that water was up to his shoulders and he couldn’t escape it. She called him and screamed that he needed to break a window and get out. Then she waited for news. It was nearly a day before she learned that he’d done as she said, then dived through the opening and swam toward a nearby taller building. When he crashed into a palm tree, he clung to it for several hours before he was able to begin making his own way toward help.

USA Today went to church with several dozen older Floridians Sunday, some of whom had sheltered in Southwest Baptist Church to ride out the hurricane because it was on somewhat higher ground. The article said the steeple toppled, the roof was damaged and the place was soaked, but “in the chapel, displaced members slept on makeshift beds made of chairs and boiled water with propane burners.” And when Sunday arrived, they came back to give thanks they survived the storm.

“The church insisted on holding a service — even if it had to be held outside — for a vulnerable community thunderstruck by loss and trauma,” USA Today reported.

On Sanibel Island, which has been cut off from the mainland after part of the causeway crumbled, crews over the weekend evacuated about 400 people who had been stranded. They are also looking for bodies, per CNN.

Finger pointing

A political storm is also brewing, now that the actual storm has passed. DeSantis has been sharply criticized because evacuation was not ordered there until less than 24 hours before Ian made landfall at Cayo Costa. Many neighboring communities had evacuation orders in place more than a day earlier.

According to Politico, “Several other counties in southwest Florida and west-central Florida — including Charlotte County, immediately to the north of Lee — had issued mandatory evacuation orders for their barrier islands on Monday, offering crucial extra time for people to depart a low-lying region with few major escape routes. The National Hurricane Center warned Monday that the region from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay faced the highest risk of storm surge, regardless of Ian’s exact path.”

Officials blame the storm track and what’s called the “cone of uncertainty,” which is a storm’s likely path, but is always subject to change. That happened in Florida, where the expectation had been that the storm would make land near Tampa Bay. It didn’t.

Per CNN: “The cone of uncertainty — which forecasters use to represent the likely path of the center of a hurricane, even though storm impacts can and often do extend outside of it — did not include Fort Myers three days before the storm made landfall. But on Wednesday, Ian made landfall in Cayo Costa in Lee County, a point that was inside the cone 72 hours before landfall.”

Still wreaking havoc

Hurricane Ian’s devastating reach has been incredible, as USA Today reported: “Five days after Hurricane Ian’s first U.S. landfall in Florida, the unrelenting storm threatened Monday to trigger some the worst flooding in more than a decade — 1,000 miles away in Virginia.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Cody Poche was quoted saying it could be the most significant tidal flooding there in the last 10 to 15 years.

The New York Times reported that days after the rain stopped, communities along the coast and further inland were still flooding. “The lingering danger was a result of a phenomenon called compound flooding,” the article said. “Floods from storm surge block rivers, which are already cresting from heavy rainfall, from draining back into the ocean.”