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Florida death toll climbs as aftermath of Hurricane Ian reverberates

Oct. 2, 2022 Updated Sun., Oct. 2, 2022 at 8:35 p.m.

Damaged homes on a flooded street in Port Charlotte, Fla., on Thursday after Hurricane Ian hit the area.  (Johnny Milano/The New York Times)
Damaged homes on a flooded street in Port Charlotte, Fla., on Thursday after Hurricane Ian hit the area. (Johnny Milano/The New York Times)
By Meryl Kornfield and Jeanne Whalen Washington Post

Florida residents continue to grapple with floodwaters yet to recede and search efforts underway as the state comes to terms with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S. mainland.

The confirmed death toll, now at 48, is expected to rise, as more autopsies are completed and recovery efforts continue. President Biden warned that Ian could be Florida’s deadliest hurricane ever.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden are planning to travel to Puerto Rico on Monday and to Florida on Wednesday to tour hurricane damage in two places that have been significantly affected, the White House announced late Saturday night.

Florida National Guard troops relied on high-water vehicles to drop off rescued residents at a church in North Port on Saturday.

Connie Cullison, 67, said she was finally picked up Saturday afternoon, after she had initially called for help Friday night. The rising water had cut off access to her home, and Cullison needs a walker to get around after having knee replacement surgery.

“My house has minor damage but we just have no power, no water, no food,” Cullison said after she was brought to the church. “But there are people so much worse off than me.”

Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission said Saturday night that the storm had caused 44 deaths in the state, most of them from drowning. Many of the victims were over 60 years old. Bodies were found inside flooded cars, floating in waters and drowned on the beach. That number is expected to grow as rescuers comb through debris and medical examiners conduct autopsies. There were four storm-related deaths in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said.

Officials said 30 of the victims in Florida were found in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Cape Coral. The county does not have running water, and nearly 70 percent of it is without power.

Across the southwest and central regions of the state, about 800,000 homes and businesses remained without power on Sunday, according to PowerOutage.us. In North Carolina, more than 26,000 customers are without power.

Meanwhile, several bridges were destroyed, complicating rescue efforts. The causeway to Sanibel, a 12-mile barrier island, was rendered impassable, cutting the island off from the mainland.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told ABC News’s “This Week” that the island will be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

“I think our priority now is to identify the people that remain on Sanibel who wanted to stay there, but eventually have to come off because there’s just no way to continue with life there,” Rubio said, adding that it will take “a couple of years at least” to rebuild the bridge.

Rubio said the total damage was more devastating than anything he could recall in Florida history. “Fort Myers Beach no longer exists. It’ll have to be rebuilt,” he said. “It was a slice of old Florida that you can’t recapture,” he said.

Speaking on the same program, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said emergency workers are “still actively in the search and rescue phase” and going “through every home to make sure that we don’t leave anybody behind.”

Residents must be vigilant to avoid the post-storm dangers that can often cause more injuries and fatalities than the storm itself, Criswell said in a separate appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Standing water brings with it all kinds of hazards. It has debris. It could have power lines,” she said. She also cautioned residents to be aware of dehydration and the risk of heart attacks.

Several guests on the Sunday morning shows were also asked about the need for stricter building codes.

Florida officials need to balance safety and affordability when evaluating which laws and codes needed to change, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Asked whether manufactured mobile housing should still be legal in Florida, Scott – who previously served as the state’s governor from 2011 to 2019 – said individual counties needed to assess what made sense for their residents.

He noted that he had just done an aerial tour of Charlotte County, north of Fort Myers, where he saw “unbelievable amounts of damage” to mobile home parks.

“Every county’s going to have to look at that,” Scott said, referring to what types of structures should be allowed to be rebuilt after the hurricane.

“At the same time, people – they want to live in Florida. They want to live in the Sunshine State,” Scott said. “And, you know, the more expensive housing you have, it makes it difficult for people to live there. I guess it’s a balance.”

Residents of Sanibel were told to evacuate before the storm, but questions have been raised about how long officials in Lee County took to make evacuation decisions amid uncertain forecasts.

Criswell on Sunday defended Lee County officials, saying that the county “wasn’t even in the hurricane path” just 72 hours before the storm made landfall.

“As soon as the storm predictions were that it was going to impact Lee County, I know that local officials immediately put the right measures in place to make sure that they were warning citizens to get them out of harm’s way,” Criswell said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Those who decided to ride out the major hurricane from their homes have begun to share their stories of camaraderie and loss in the wake of the storm.

Major flooding is also expected to continue through next week across portions of central Florida, causing more destruction and posing a further challenge to clean up and rescues. Already, the storm is estimated to have caused more than $60 billion in property loss in Florida.

Major flood warnings have shut down roads stretching from the Kissimmee River to St. Johns River watersheds in central Florida. The National Weather Service is concerned that places including East Lake Tohopekaliga and Lake Tohopekaliga will have more flooding in the coming days, leading to more waterlogged areas downstream for inland areas such as Orlando.

The Myakka River, reaching a record high, washed over Interstate 75, closing the major highway before it was reopened Saturday afternoon. Officials are continuing to monitor the river’s levels.

Water has already inundated buildings as far north as homes in Astor near St. Johns and south as a retirement community in Kissimmee, outside of Orlando.

The Washington Post’s Tim Craig, Karoun Demirjian, Amy B Wang and Matt Brown contributed to this report.

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