ST PETERSBURG, Florida — Rescue crews manned boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to save thousands of Floridians trapped amid flooded homes and broken buildings as Hurricane Ian barreled across the Atlantic Ocean toward South Carolina.
Hours after weakening to a tropical storm as it crossed the Florida peninsula, Ian regained hurricane strength over the Atlantic Thursday evening. The National Hurricane Center is forecasting a Category 1 hurricane to hit South Carolina on Friday.
The devastation in Florida came a day after a devastating Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest to hit the United States, flooded homes on both coasts of the state and cut off the barrier island’s only road access. It destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out power to 2.67 million Florida homes and businesses — nearly a quarter of utility customers.
WATCH: Joe Torres reports on Hurricane Ian’s destructive path
At least nine deaths have been confirmed in Florida, while three more people were reported killed in Cuba after a hurricane hit the island on Tuesday.
In the Fort Myers area, houses were torn from their stilts and placed among the shredded rubble. Commercial establishments near the beach were completely destroyed, leaving behind twisted debris. Broken docks floated at odd angles next to damaged boats and fires burned where houses once stood.
“I don’t know how anyone could have survived there,” William Goodison said amid the wreckage of the mobile home park in Fort Myers Beach, where he lived for 11 years.
The tornado ripped through the park of about 60 homes, many of which were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, including Goodison’s single-family house. Wading through waist-deep water, Goodison and his son wheeled two trash cans — a small air conditioner, some tools and a baseball bat.
A Fort Myers road was littered with broken trees, boat trailers and other debris. Cars were abandoned on the road, stopped when storm surge flooded their engines.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at least 700 rescues, mostly by air, have been conducted so far involving the US Coast Guard, National Guard and urban search and rescue teams.
After leaving Florida as a tropical storm on Thursday and entering the Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Canaveral, Ian re-intensified into a hurricane at 75 mph (120 kph).
A hurricane warning was issued for the South Carolina coast and extended to Cape Fear on the southeastern coast of North Carolina. With tropical-storm-force winds reaching about 415 miles (665 kilometers) from its center, Ian was forecast to push a storm surge of 5 feet (1.5 meters) to coastal areas in Georgia and the Carolinas. Up to 8 inches (20 cm) of rain fell, creating a flood risk from South Carolina to Virginia.
National Guard troops were deployed to South Carolina to assist with the aftermath, including any water rescues. Thursday afternoon, a steady stream of vehicles left the 350-year-old city of Charleston.
Sheriffs in Southwest Florida say 911 centers are inundated with thousands of isolated callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. The U.S. Coast Guard began rescue efforts in the hours before dawn on the barrier islands near where Ian hit, DeSantis said. More than 800 federal urban search and rescue personnel were also in the area.
In the Orlando area, Orange County firefighters used boats to reach people in flooded areas. Patients from a nursing home were bussed across floodwaters on stretchers.
In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours holding the dining room table against the patio door, fearing the storm was “ripping our house apart.”
“I was scared,” Bartley said. “All we heard was shingles and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house.”
MORE: Rescue workers search Florida’s flooded disaster zone amid massive power outages
The storm tore down patio screens and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but left the roof intact and her family unharmed.
Long lines formed at gas stations in Fort Myers and a Home Depot hardware store opened, allowing only a few customers at a time.
Frank Pino was at the back of the line, with about 100 people in front of him.
“I hope they leave something because I need everything,” Pino said.
A 72-year-old Deltona man died after falling into a drain while using a hose to drain his pool during heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. A 38-year-old Lake County man died Wednesday after his vehicle hydroplaned in a crash, according to authorities.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office was struggling to respond to thousands of 911 calls in the Fort Myers area, but many roads and bridges were impassable.
Emergency workers tore down trees to reach stranded people. Power and cellular outages left many in hard-hit areas unable to call for help.
Part of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the ocean, cutting off access to the barrier island, home to 6,300 people.
No deaths or injuries have been confirmed in the surrounding county, and the overpasses on the barrier islands “have the integrity of the homes much better than we expected,” said Patrick Fuller, the county’s director of emergency management.
Even south of Sanibel Island, historic beach piers in Naples were torn up and destroyed. “Right now, there’s no pier,” Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor said.
In Port Charlotte, a hospital emergency room flooded and strong winds tore off part of the roof, sending water into the intensive care unit. Sick patients — some on ventilators — crowded the middle two floors as staff prepared for the arrival of storm victims, said Dr. Birgit Bodin of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital.
Part of the Sanibel Causeway Falling into the ocean, it cut off access to the barrier island, home to 6,300 people. It’s unclear how many people heeded orders to evacuate, but Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Patrick Fuller expressed cautious optimism.
Ian hit Florida with winds of 150 mph (241 km/h), tying it as the fifth strongest hurricane to hit the United States.
While scientists generally avoid blaming climate change for specific storms without detailed analysis, Ian’s hydrological destruction fits what scientists predict for a warming world: stronger and wetter hurricanes, but not too many of them.
“This business of very, very heavy rain is something we’re going to expect because of climate change,” said Kerry Emanuel, an MIT atmospheric scientist. “We’ll see storms like Ian.”
Associated Press contributors include Terry Spencer and Tim Reynolds in Fort Myers; Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Frida Frisaro in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington; and Bobby Kaina Galvan in New York.
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