(Reuters) – Rescue workers and residents on Florida’s Gulf Coast searched for missing people and picked up the pieces of wrecked homes on Thursday after Hurricane Ian tore through the area with howling winds, torrential rains and raging waves.
One of the most powerful storms to hit the US mainland in recent years, Ian flooded communities and left more than two million homes and businesses without power before moving across the peninsula to the Atlantic coast.
It was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday morning as it weakened over land.
Ian made landfall on the barrier island of Cayo Costa on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 km/h).
An unspecified number of people were left stranded after choosing to stay home instead of heeding evacuation orders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
In the early morning hours after it passed, residents in hard-hit areas scrambled for family and friends as trees, debris and power lines covered roads and standing water washed over the ground. Searching was made more difficult because cell phone service was often cut.
“A lot of down trees, a lot of flooding everywhere. We’re trying to get my daughter,” Terri Byrd said as she sat in a vehicle in a Walmart parking lot trying to get cell service after spending the night at an elementary school in Venice.
Ian eased as it moved over Florida but still produced strong winds, heavy rain and storm surge, including in Georgia and the Carolinas, the US National Hurricane Center said.
The storm, which packed maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (100 km/h), was about 40 miles (70 km) southeast of Orlando, the Miami-based forecaster said.
President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration on Thursday, which made federal resources available to the counties affected by the storm.
As Ian came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, surging seawater swept into waterfront homes in Naples, Fort Myers and other cities. Firefighters waded through chest-high water to rescue people, including a Naples woman who was stranded in her car.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said Pinellas County had been spared while neighboring counties took the brunt of the storm. Local officials would make their first push at dawn to assess the damage and begin addressing the roughly 190,000 power outages there, he said.
“This storm showed us…that these storms are very powerful but that the trajectory was also very precise,” he told MSNBC.
In Venice and elsewhere, downed trees and power lines lay across roads, roofs were torn off homes and water gushed into neighborhoods. Boats at their moorings were tossed around like corks.
There were no official reports of storm-related deaths or serious injuries in Florida. But US border officials said 20 Cuban migrants were missing after their boat sank off the coast on Wednesday.
Local power companies said more than 2.4 million Florida homes and businesses were without power early Thursday after being hit by the storm.
Some utilities had begun restoring customers now that the storm has passed through South Florida but the number of outages increased as the storm moved across Florida.
Florida Power & Light Co. mobilized more than 13,000 personnel to support power restoration efforts.
FPL spokesman Dave Reuter told CNN crews had already restored power to about 700,000 customers, although about 1.1 million customers remain without power.
Crews will head out once they can safely assess the extent of the damage and where power can be restored, but if infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, it could take weeks, Reuter said.
Ian was expected to reach the Atlantic coast on Thursday afternoon, the NHC said.
It continued to unleash drenching rain as it crept further inland and threatened to bring more widespread flooding. Up to 30 inches (76 cm) of rain was forecast to fall on parts of central Florida, the NHC said.
Protection from the storm
Florida’s southwest coastline, dotted with sandy beaches, seaside towns and RV parks, quickly turned into a disaster zone when the storm hit. Small residential areas off Highway 41 were left in ruins.
A lot in front of a grocery store in Venice became a lake, with water reaching the trunks of some of the cars parked there. Communication was almost impossible in many places.
Video footage of the storm’s fury on local television and social media showed floodwaters nearly reaching rooftops in some communities, sweeping away cars and the ruins of homes as palm trees were bent nearly in half.
Many campers took refuge in local schools and other facilities that were converted into emergency housing. The area’s many nursing homes were mostly evacuated as well.
DeSantis said Ian had created life-threatening storm surges — waves of wind-driven seawater that rushed along the coast — of up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) in some places.
“This is a storm that we will be talking about for years to come, a historic event,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service.