Death toll from Hurricane Ian rises to 54, with 47 killed in Florida alone
- The bulk of the deaths confirmed in Florida were mostly from drowning in storm waters, but others were from Ian’s tragic aftereffects
- Meanwhile, President Joe Biden will head this week to Puerto Rico and Florida to witness the damage caused by back-to-back hurricanes
Authorities in Florida confirmed several more deaths late on Saturday that raised the state’s death toll from Hurricane Ian to at least 47 fatalities, hiking the global toll to at least 54 dead.
A list of the dead compiled by medical examiners in the state and made public reported numerous drowning deaths, victims found submerged or floating in storm waters.
Ian slammed into the southwest Gulf coast of Florida as a major Category 4 hurricane earlier in the week before crossing the peninsula out over the Atlantic Ocean and then striking the US Southeast seacoast as a Category 1 hurricane. Four other storm-related deaths were reported in North Carolina and three in Cuba.
As of Saturday, more than 1,000 people had been rescued from flooded areas along Florida’s southwestern coast alone, Daniel Hokanson, a four-star General and head of the National Guard, told Associated Press while airborne to Florida.
Chris Schnapp was at the Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers on Saturday, waiting to see whether her 83-year-old mother-in-law had been evacuated from Sanibel Island. A pontoon boat had just arrived with a load of passengers from the island – with suitcases and animals in tow – but Schnapp’s mother-in-law was not among them.
“She stayed on the island. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law own two businesses over there. They evacuated. She did not want to go,” Schnapp said. Now, she said, she wasn’t sure if her mother-in-law was still on the island or had been taken to a shelter somewhere.
On Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf coast, houses were reduced to splinters and boats littered roadways as a volunteer rescue group went door-to-door Saturday, asking isolated residents if they wanted to be evacuated. Residents described the horror of being trapped in their homes as water kept rising.
“The water just kept pounding the house and we watched, boats, houses – we watched everything just go flying by,” said Joe Conforti, as he fought back tears. He said if it wasn’t for his wife, who suggested they get up on a table to avoid the rising water, he wouldn’t have made it: “I started to lose sensibility, because when the water’s at your door and it’s splashing on the door and you’re seeing how fast it’s moving, there’s no way you’re going to survive that.”
River flooding posed a major challenge at times to rescue and supply delivery efforts. The Myakka River washed over a stretch of Interstate 75, forcing a traffic-snarling highway closure for a while Saturday. That’s a key corridor linking Tampa to the north with the hard-hit southwest Florida region that straddles Port Charlotte and Fort Myers. Later Saturday, state officials said, water levels had receded enough that I-75 could be fully reopened.
While rising waters in Florida’s southwest rivers have crested or are near cresting, the levels aren’t expected to drop significantly for days, said National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming in Tampa.
Elsewhere, South Carolina’s Pawleys Island – a beach community roughly 75 miles (115 kilometres) up the coast from Charleston – was among the places hardest hit. Power remained knocked out to at least half of the island Saturday.
Eddie Wilder, who has been coming to Pawleys Island for more than six decades, said Friday’s storm was “insane.” He said waves as high as 25 feet (7.6 meters) washed away the local pier – an iconic landmark.
“We watched it hit the pier and saw the pier disappear,” said Wilder, whose house 30 feet (9 meters) above the ocean stayed dry inside. “We watched it crumble and watched it float by with an American flag.”
The Pawleys pier was one of at least four along South Carolina’s coast destroyed by battering winds and rain. Meanwhile, the intracoastal waterway was strewn with the remnants of several boat houses knocked off their pilings.
John Joseph, whose father built the family’s beige beach house in 1962, said Saturday he was elated to return from Georgetown – which took a direct hit. He found his Pawleys Island home entirely intact.
“Thank God these walls are still here, and we feel very blessed that this is the worst thing,” he said of sand that had swept under his home. “What happened in Florida – gosh, God bless us. If we’d had a Category 4, I wouldn’t be here.”
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden will head this week to Puerto Rico and Florida to witness the damage caused by back-to-back hurricanes, the White House said on Saturday.
Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted that Biden and First Lady Jill Biden would travel Monday to Puerto Rico – which suffered major destruction from Hurricane Fiona last month.
On Wednesday the Bidens will continue to Florida to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Ian.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse