Southwest Florida in tatters after Hurricane Ian's rampage
Tensions ran high on Friday at gas stations in Bonita Springs, where waits at the pump were an hour or more. And the death toll in Florida rose to more than two dozen, officials said.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Ian across southwestern Florida, one of the strongest storms ever to hit the United States, continued coming into sharper focus as rescue crews reached the hardest-hit areas and helped thousands of those stranded by the storm to safety.
As of Sunday morning, the death toll was at least 73 according to CNN, with the numbers expected to rise over the coming days. 66 of these were in Florida, with another 4 in North Carolina and at least 3 more in Cuba, where the storm hit last week. The Associated Press noted that most deaths were from drowning, but others were from the storm’s aftereffects. Meanwhile, rescue crews continued to search for the missing, and over 800,000 across the state remained without power early Saturday morning. The total damage and economic loss of Hurricane Ian will be between $180 billion and $210 billion, according to AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers. Should the economic loss fall within this range, Ian could be among the most costly U.S. hurricanes ever.
The news of the increasing fatality count came against a bleak backdrop of what the death toll might eventually be. President Joe Biden warned during a press briefing at FEMA headquarters on Thursday that Ian could be the “deadliest” hurricane in Florida’s history.
However, in a press conference on Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis disagreed with the president's statement that Ian could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida's history, the Tampa Bay Times reported. DeSantis recalled the 1928 hurricane that killed more than 2,500 people in Florida after striking Palm Beach County, a number that remains far from current figures.
"I don't think we will be anywhere approaching that," DeSantis said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. DeSantis also pointed to hundreds of successful rescue operations that took place in the hours since Ian plowed through the Florida Peninsula.
FEMA officials on Saturday told reporters that approximately 4,000 people had been rescued, and added that rescue operations in Florida have been carried out in cooperation with the Florida National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard as well as local first responders.
In a press briefing on Friday afternoon, Biden said that search and rescue teams are in place across some of the hardest-hit areas. “I’ve directed that every possible action be taken to save lives and get help to survivors because every single minute counts,” Biden said.
What's not in dispute is the tremendous damage left in the storm's wake. Homes on both of the state's coasts were flooded, the only road to a barrier island was destroyed, and a historic waterfront pier was destroyed.
Ian unleashed relentless wind gusts across Florida as the eyewall moved inland. The highest official reported wind gust was 128 mph recorded by a WeatherFlow station in Grove City, which is close to where Ian made landfall. However, unreported winds may have even been stronger in nearby areas.
Aerial imagery showed just how destructive and powerful the wind was as Ian ripped through the area. In a video from Fort Myers, Florida, the boats that were once in harbors and marinas could be seen scattered across the town. AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell said the boats looked like they were "tossed around like toys."
"It was tremendous, it was devastating, it was sobering to see something like that," Steve Smith, who found his boat in the middle of the mess left behind, told Wadell.
"We've lost all our boats. That's the long and short of it," Cookie Smith, Steve's wife, told Wadell. "But we're all safe, and we just pray for those that had homes that were washed away."
In Bonita Springs, which is just north of Naples, tensions ran high Friday as fuel was in short supply. Lines at the few gas stations that were open required wait times of an hour or more, according to Wadell's report.
“We heard about fights at the gas station, people getting knocked out, stuff like that,” Lindsey Walsh, who said she walked four miles with a friend in order to fill up a single gas canister, told Wadell. Local law enforcement was called to some of the few operating gas stations in order to help with traffic and to calm down those who were unable to fill up their vehicles.
The shocking scenes of destruction hint at how sweeping and long-lasting the impact across Florida will be felt. The economic fallout caused by the storm will be immense, AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers said -- on par with some of the worst hurricane damage in U.S. history.
According to Myers, the total losses caused by Hurricane Ian will amount to between $180 billion and $210 billion in the U.S. Hurricane Ian was rated a 5 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes due to its potential for life-threatening storm surge and its powerful winds.
“Ian will go down as one of the most damaging and impactful storms in U.S. history, along with 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which caused $190 billion in total damage and economic loss,” Myers said. Other notorious storms Myers noted include Irma, which was blamed for $80 billion in losses in 2017, Sandy in 2012, which caused $210 billion in losses, and Katrina in 2005, which resulted in $320 billion in damages. Those figures have been adjusted for inflation.
Myers, who has been studying the economic impact of severe weather for over 50 years, said, “Our estimate largely accounts for damage to homes, businesses, medical facilities, roadways and vehicles as well as power outages, which results in food spoilage and interruption to medical care.” The toll on Florida’s agriculture industry will be significant, too. Myers estimates “nearly $6 billion in crop losses, including damage to orange groves as well as grapefruit, soybeans, peanuts, cotton and other commodities.”
Another way Hurricane Ian's path across Florida can be illustrated is with a 24-hour rainfall total map. The heaviest of the rain fell from Port Charlotte, on Florida's west coast, to Ponce Inlet, on Florida's east coast.
In just 24 hours, automated rain gauges reported as much as 31.52 inches of rain near Ponce Inlet while an amateur weather observer recorded 28.60 inches at New Smyrna Beach, which is just south of Ponce Inlet.
Rainfall totals combined with the ferocious storm surge wreaked havoc on barrier islands and areas close to the coast.
"I've been here 29 years, and I've never experienced or seen anything like this," longtime Florida resident Michele Reidy, who lives near Fort Myers, told AccuWeather. "Our families have lost everything ... [there is] a boat sitting almost in our apartment. It's all underwater."
As the water receded on Thursday, a line was left behind on Reidy's apartment wall, which shows how high the storm surge rose. Reidy estimated the storm surge was 6 to 8 feet tall in her apartment.
A section of the Sanibel Causeway, the only bridge that leads to Sanibel Island, collapsed on Wednesday night in the wake of Hurricane Ian. The island is a barrier island located just south of where Ian made landfall and is home to around 6,500 people. It is unclear how many people rode out the storm on the island or how long it will take until repairs can be made.
Aerial imagery released by NOAA showed the damage the causeway sustained. Officials planned to evaluate the rest of the bridge to determine if other sections are at risk of collapse.
South of Sanibel, the historic beachfront pier in Naples was destroyed by Ian's wrath. A video feed from EarthCam showed people on the pier before the worst of the storm moved inland. By the time Ian made landfall, it was a much different scene on the pier. Water levels nearly submerged the pier, and waves came crashing down on it before the Earthcam video went offline.
View of the Sanibel Causeway before and after Hurricane Ian. (National Geodetic Survey, 2022: 2022 NOAA NGS Emergency Response Imagery: Hurricane Ian, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/inport/item/67923.)
"We have received reports that Naples Pier is 'gone.' The Naples Pier is not gone, but it did sustain significant damage," the Naples Police Department said in an update.
As of Friday morning, power outages had dropped below 2 million for the first time since Wednesday. According to PowerOutage.US, there were still more than 1.3 million customers without power in Florida by Saturday morning. The bulk of the power outages was centered on where Ian made landfall, with the vast majority of residents and businesses in Hardee County still in the dark.
Fort Myers Beach and fishing pier before (Aug. 17, 2022) and after (Sept. 30, 2022) Hurricane Ian. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies.)
President Biden on Friday spoke to the sheer scope of Ian's devastation. “You have all seen on television homes and property wiped out. It’s going to take months, years to rebuild," Biden told reporters at the White House. "And our hearts go out to all those folks whose lives have been absolutely devastated by this storm.”
The president added, "We are just beginning to see the scale of destruction. It’s likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history.”
Hurricane Ian made landfall as a strong Category 4 hurricane Wednesday afternoon on the barrier islands of southwestern Florida, just west of heavily populated Fort Myers. It crashed ashore on the Florida mainland -- its second U.S. landfall -- just south of Punta Gorda in Charlotte County later in the afternoon. Only four hurricanes on record have made landfall over the contiguous U.S. with maximum sustained winds greater than 155 mph.
Additional reporting by Bill Wadell and Mike Scantlin.
Correction: Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management Kevin Guthrie, delivered the news of the confirmed death toll on Friday, not Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a previous version of this article indicated.
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