The death toll from Tropical Storm Ian remained unclear early Thursday after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said it brought “historic” damage to the state, hours after President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Florida amid what the National Hurricane Center described as “catastrophic flooding” over east and central parts of the state.
“We’ve never seen a flood event like this,” DeSantis said.
Two people were reported dead Thursday, though DeSantis said it was still unconfirmed whether their deaths were storm-related or if they died amid the storm from other causes. Local officials reported that a 34-year-old man died in Martin County, just north of Palm Beach, and a 72-year-old man died in Volusia County on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. The Lee County sheriff said Thursday he believed “hundreds” might be dead after the storm made landfall to the north, though no numbers have been confirmed as search and rescue efforts are underway.
The storm is projected to bring potentially “life-threatening” floods, storm surge and winds to parts of Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina as it makes its way toward northeast Florida and then approaches the South Carolina coast on Friday.
The center downgraded Ian from a Category 1 hurricane early Thursday. DeSantis, a Republican, said the storm was still dangerous to many Floridians.
Some 2.6 million customers were still without power in the state as of early Thursday, according to the online tracking site PowerOutage.us. The extent of the damage to life and property was unclear, as strong winds prevented first responders in the most flooded communities from carrying out rescues. DeSantis said the response has begun and will continue throughout the day. The governors of Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina declared states of emergency ahead of Ian’s expected shift in their directions.
Hurricane and storm surge warnings have been issued for the entire coast of South Carolina as the tropical storm is forecast to gain strength as it moves back over the Atlantic Ocean and then make a second U.S. landfall.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, Ian had moved just offshore Cape Canaveral and was churning to the north-northeast at 9 mph. Its maximum sustained winds had crept up to 70 mph, a 5 mph increase from early Thursday morning, and just 5 mph shy of hurricane strength.
By Thursday night, the National Hurricane Center projects Ian will have regained hurricane strength as it passes over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
The storm is projected to make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds Friday not far from Charleston, S.C. The hurricane center is projecting a “life-threatening” surge of up to 4 to 7 feet along the central South Carolina coast, including around Charleston.
In addition to the storm surge and hurricane warnings for South Carolina, tropical storm and surge watches and warnings cover much of the North Carolina, Georgia and central and north Florida coasts.
“Hurricane-force winds are expected across the South Carolina coast beginning early Friday,” the hurricane center wrote. “Hurricane conditions are possible by tonight along the coasts of northeastern Florida and Georgia, where a Hurricane Watch is in effect.”
Heavy rain and flooding are also anticipated as the storm moves over the Southeast; the hurricane center projects the following amounts:
• Coastal Georgia: 2 to 5 inches.
• South Carolina Lowcountry: 4 to 8 inches with locally up to a foot.
• Upstate and central South Carolina, North Carolina and southern Virginia: 3 to 6 inches with locally up to 8 inches.
In Fort Myers, homes filled with several feet of water. Yards were littered with broken trees and debris. Boats pushed ashore and flipped upside down.
As Tropical Storm Ian shifts north, residents of Fort Myers and other parts of badly hit southwest Florida are beginning to emerge and survey the damage.
A Washington Post reporter entering Fort Myers on Thursday saw homes with broken windows, roof damage and flooding along the Caloosahatchee River, which snakes through the city and out toward the Gulf Coast. A gas station overhang had collapsed. A number of people could be seen outside, assessing the damage to their homes.
Ian made landfall Wednesday in southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm.
In Tampa, The city woke Thursday to clear skies and a collective sigh of relief. The outer bands of Hurricane Ian passed over the region the day before, bringing gusty wind and driving showers, but nothing approaching the destruction initially forecast - or the devastation wrought a few dozen miles south.
There were scattered reports of downed power lines, felled trees, home damage and electricity outages in the area.
“We were lucky once again,” Bonnie M. Wise, Hillsborough County administrator, said at a news briefing, adding that the hurricane’s late change of track “spared us from the worst of the wind and the rain.”
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