Hurricane Ian has been downgraded to a tropical storm as it continues to lash Florida. And officials and rescue crews are still accounting for the toll, unsure how many died or how much the damage will total, though it’s clear the hurricane was — and continues to be — catastrophic.
Tropical Storm Ian is trekking toward Georgia and the Carolinas. But the danger is not past in Florida, as the flooding that’s occurring could be deadly, officials warn.
Meanwhile, there’s no question that people died in the hurricane, though the death toll is unknown. As of early Thursday morning, two deaths had been reported. Officials have said they expect the count could be “in the hundreds.”
“The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that was done has been historic and this is just off initial assessments,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday. “But I think we’ve never seen a flood event like this. We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude and it hit an area where there’s a lot of people in a lot of those low-lying areas and it’s going to end up doing extensive damage to a lot of people’s homes.”
Power is out for an estimated 2.5 million customers and additional flooding is expected. DeSantis said Charlotte and Lee county infrastructure will need to be rebuilt.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that as of Thursday morning, Ian was “still dumping record amounts of rain to bring ‘catastrophic flooding’ across Florida, while still packing damaging winds across a 415-mile swath of the state.”
As the damage assessments begin, reports include the loss of a roof over a hospital intensive care, people stuck on roofs and inside flooded homes, closed and damaged roads, downed power lines and more.
The Sentinel said that vehicles in central Florida were being stranded by the rising floodwaters. And DeSantis was quoted saying the Coast Guard worked all night on the barrier islands, rescuing folks. He called Ian “a 500-year flood event.”
CNN called it a “1-in-1,000 year rainfall” in central Florida. “Radar estimates and ground observation rainfall shows well over one foot of rain fell in just 12-24 hours across a swath of the region. In some of the hardest-hit areas, this exceeds the rainfall rates for 1-in-1,000 year flood events, according to NOAA data,” CNN said.
More than 15,000 people let the state know they were sheltering in place, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management told the newspaper, which said that number didn’t include 911 calls for help.
ABC News reported that Ian had weakened from gusts of up to 190 mph to about 65 mph as of Thursday morning. While still very windy, the decrease has allowed crews to begin assessing the damage.
One of the big issues is the Sanibel Causeway connecting Sanibel Island to mainland Florida. It cannot be used without a thorough rebuild, according to DeSantis, as quoted by ABC. The same is true of the bridge connecting Pine Island to the mainland. About 100 engineers are busy inspecting bridges across the Sunshine State.
CNN said large portions of some of the bridges, including the Sanibel Causeway, had washed away.
While evacuation orders were being lifted and shelters closed, officials warned that hazards will remain very real for days to come. “This is not an all-clear,” Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said in a written statement posted by the county. “There are still hazards out there and you need to understand the danger.”
He also “implored ‘disaster tourists’ to stay home” so that rescues, assessments and repairs can take place.
The Herald-Tribune reported that the Sarasota Police Department was asking people to stay home and off the roads to allow that same process.