TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he anticipates casualties in the wake of Hurricane Ian’s catastrophic damage throughout much of the state, but stressed that search-and-rescue efforts have found no deceased individuals so far.
During a Thursday night news briefing on the recovery effort, the Republican governor said more than 700 people have been rescued throughout the state since the storm made landfall Wednesday afternoon near Fort Myers in Lee County.
Early reports indicate at least 12 deaths associated with the hurricane, one of the worst in Florida history. Some early fatalities were reported in Central Florida, far from Ian’s landfall, and DeSantis said at least one death was a reported suicide.
“We absolutely expect to have mortality from this hurricane,” DeSantis said. “Just caution, people, there’s a process by where that is confirmed.” He added that “people have said certain things” about casualties that are “not something that has been confirmed at this juncture.”
His comments came after President Joe Biden earlier in the day had said early reports indicate that Ian caused substantial loss of life, saying that “this could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida history.” Florida’s deadliest hurricane on record was the 1928 Okeechobee storm, which killed more than 2,500 in the state.
The sheriff of Lee County, Carmine Marceno, told “Good Morning America” early Thursday morning that fatalities “are in the hundreds.”
Ian, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, unleashed winds of 150 mph when it crashed ashore Wednesday, causing what DeSantis described as a “500-year flood event.” At least 15,000 people were sheltering in place during the storm. Before it made landfall, more than 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders. Nearly 2.5 million people remain without power on Thursday night, though at least 500,000 had power restored.
Floodwaters in some of the hardest-hit areas surpassed 6 feet; videos on social media depicted water bursting through doors and swelling to the second story of homes. Chunks of bridges crumbled into the water, and massive trees fell, contributing to the power outages across the state.
“Lee and Charlotte [counties] are basically off the grid at this point,” DeSantis said Thursday during an earlier press briefing.
DeSantis said the state launched efforts to rescue possibly thousands of people stranded in their homes by the historic flooding. Biden also declared a major disaster in Florida, which brings with it federal aid to supplement state, local and tribal recovery efforts in areas affected by the storm.
“You’re looking at a storm that’s changed the character of a significant part of our state,” DeSantis said. “And this is going to require not just emergency response now in the days or weeks ahead — this is going to require years of efforts to be able to rebuild and come back.”
DeSantis remained optimistic that rescue efforts could reach people stranded by floodwaters.
“We’re obviously hoping that they can be rescued at this point, and I know the folks there locally, those are the areas they want to spring into action to,” DeSantis said.
About 28 Chinook helicopters are performing rescue missions in the hardest-hit areas. The state also deployed 100 engineers to survey damage to bridges, including the Sanibel Causeway and Pine Island Bascule Bridge, which are not passable, DeSantis said.
By Thursday night, the storm had moved into the Atlantic east of Florida and was heading toward Georgia and the Carolinas. It also strengthed back into a hurricane.
In one hospital system in the badly-hit Lee County, Ian shut down the public water supply and caused rampant power outages. Florida Hospital Association CEO Mary Mayhew said Lee Health, which includes the Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, had to evacuate 1,000 patients on Thursday starting at daybreak. The statewide medical community descended on the area as rescuers moved patients to facilities outside the area that were willing to help.
The governor and Biden spoke Thursday morning about the storm after Biden declared Ian a major disaster, opening up more aid for the state and individual assistance to residents of nine counties. Biden also spoke with Cecil Pendergrass, a commissioner in Lee County.
Biden will send FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to Florida on Friday to “check in” on the response and gauge where Florida needs more support. “The President and Governor committed to continued close coordination,” White House officials said in a readout of the call.
The federal assistance released by the president could include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low cost loans to cover uninsured property loss and other programs to assist with disaster-recovery.
Criswell said Thursday that “we have some reports on fatalities” in Lee County, including from the sheriff, and that “they expect the number to go up.”
“What I know right now is Lee County was basically ground zero for the impacts that were seen from Hurricane Ian,” Criswell said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “And we know that we are going to have catastrophic impacts to that area.”
The FEMA administrator said officials would gather post-storm imagery as soon as it’s safe to fly to further assess the greatest areas of impact and “get boots on the ground in the areas of greatest need.”
The White House said in its disaster declaration that damage assessments are continuing in other areas of the state, ”and additional areas may be designated for assistance after the assessments are fully completed.”
Biden’s approval comes a day after DeSantis officially requested the disaster declaration for the entire state. The entire Florida congressional delegation also wrote to Biden in support of DeSantis’ request.
“This historic hurricane will continue to impact the state for some time, and the full extent of damage will not be known for days. However, approving this declaration request will allow Floridians to be better prepared for the recovery phase,” the lawmakers said in a letter, led by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
The state activated 5,000 National Guard troops to assist in the recovery efforts. At least 40,000 workers were on standby to help restore power.
About 3,000 rescue efforts were underway in Lee County, Scott said Thursday. In Naples, Scott said, the “whole city” was flooded, with water “from the bay to the gulf,” and local first responders already lost two brand new fire trucks in the flooding.
“So the process right now — unfortunately, I’ve done this enough times I can tell you the process — first thing you got to keep everybody safe, you got to rescue everybody,” Scott said.
Karen Baughman, 81, of Fort Myers, couldn’t evacuate her home before the hurricane struck and was hunkered down in her home on Wednesday. She said she felt safe and didn’t have any flooding in her neighborhood.
“I’ve been through three hurricanes here and only once did I have to go to a shelter,” she said in an interview. “My home felt safe. It’s always sounded worse — the predictions — than it’s been. And I didn’t really know where I would go.”
Zack Colman, Andrew Atterbury, Tanya Snyder and Bruce Ritchie contributed to this report.