FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Rescuers have evacuated stunned survivors to a large barrier island cut off by Hurricane Ian and Florida’s death toll has risen sharply, as hundreds of thousands of people still suffocate without power a few days after the monstrous storm that broke out. southwest coast to the Carolinas.
Florida, with nearly four dozen dead, was hardest hit by the Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest to make landfall in the United States. Flooded roads and washed out bridges to barrier islands have left many isolated, amid limited cellphone service and a lack of basic amenities such as water, electricity and internet .
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said Saturday that multi-billionaire businessman Elon Musk was providing some 120 Starlink satellites to “help solve some of the communication problems.” Starlink, a satellite internet system created by Musk’s SpaceX, will provide high-speed connectivity.
Florida utilities were working to restore power. As of Saturday evening, nearly a million homes and businesses were still without power, down from a peak of 2.67 million.
At least 54 people have been confirmed dead: 47 in Floridafour in North Carolina and three in Cuba.
More than 1,000 people have been rescued from flooded areas along Florida’s southwest coast alone, four-star general and National Guard chief Daniel Hokanson told The Associated Press while in flight to Florida.
In Washington, the White House announced that President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden would visit Florida on Wednesday. But a brief statement did not reveal any details of the planned visit to the state.
The bridge to Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, was destroyed by the storm, leaving it accessible only by boat or plane. The volunteer group Medic Corps, which responds to natural disasters around the world with pilots, paramedics and doctors, went door to door asking residents if they wanted to be evacuated.
Some left in helicopters and people described the horror to be trapped in their homes as the water continued to rise.
“The water kept pounding the house and we watched, boats, houses – we watched it all fly,” Joe Conforti said, fighting back tears. He said that if it hadn’t been for his wife, who suggested they get on a table to avoid the rising waters, he wouldn’t have succeeded: “I started to lose feeling, because when the water is at your door and it splashes on the door and you see how fast it’s moving, there’s no way to survive that.
River floods have sometimes posed a major challenge to rescue and delivery efforts. The Myakka River flowed down a stretch of Interstate 75, forcing the freeway to close for a while before officials said later Saturday it could be reopened.
While the swollen rivers have crested or are near their crest, levels aren’t expected to drop significantly for days, National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming said.
Elsewhere, Pawleys Island, South Carolina, a seaside community about 115 miles up the coast from Charleston, was also hard hit. Electricity remained knocked out in at least half of the island on Saturday.
Eddie Wilder, who has been coming to Pawleys Island for more than six decades, said it was “insane” to see waves as high as 25ft (7.6m) wash away a historic pier near his home.
“We saw it hit the pier and saw the pier disappear,” he said. “We watched it go down and we saw it waving with an American flag.”
Wilder’s home, 30 feet (9 meters) above the shoreline, remained dry inside.
In North Carolina, the storm downed trees and power lines. Two of the four deaths in the state were from storm-related vehicle crashes, and the others involved a man who drowned when his truck plunged into a swamp and another killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage.
At Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers, Florida, the storm surge knocked several boats and a dock ashore. Charter captain Ryan Kane said his vessel was so badly damaged he couldn’t use it to help rescue people, and now it will be a long time before he can take clients fishing again.
“There is a hole in the hull. It took water in the engines. It took water in everything,” he said, adding, “You know, boats are supposed to be in the water, not in the parking lots.
Kinnard reported from Pawleys Island, SC; Associated Press contributors include Freida Frisaro in Miami; Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Gerald Herbert in Pine Island, Florida; Mike Pesoli in Lehigh Acres, Florida; Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia; and Amy Forliti of Minneapolis.