Crews in Florida race to rescue those trapped by Hurricane Ian

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VENICE – Emergency crews moved in helicopters and boats Thursday to rescue residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast stranded by floodwaters, downed power lines and piles of debris left by the hurricane’s destructive march Ian across the state.

One of the most powerful storms to hit the North American continent in recent years, Ian flooded Gulf Coast communities before crossing the peninsula to the Atlantic coast. Local power companies said more than 2.6 million homes and businesses in Florida were without power.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis said Lee and Charlotte counties, home to more than 900,000 people, were “basically off the grid.”

Ian made landfall on the barrier island of Cayo Costa late Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 km per hour). After weakening to a tropical storm, Ian was expected to strengthen and make landfall as a hurricane in South Carolina on Friday.

The storm transformed Southwest Florida’s coast, dotted with sandy beaches, coastal towns and mobile home parks, into a disaster zone as Ian swept seawater into waterfront homes.

“The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that was done was historic,” DeSantis said during a news conference. “We’ve never seen a flood like this. We’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude.”

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DeSantis said there were two unconfirmed fatalities related to the storm. The extent of the deaths and injuries was unclear Thursday morning as rescue workers were only beginning to respond to calls after being unable to get out during the treacherous conditions.

DeSantis said 28 helicopters were conducting water rescues. He also said the bridge to Sanibel Island, a barrier island on the Gulf Coast, was badly damaged and impassable. Two hospitals in the area were evacuated and patients were moved to higher ground.

By noon Thursday, residents of hard-hit areas like Venice, located in Sarasota County about 75 miles south of Tampa, hunted for family and friends as rescue teams worked to reach people trapped in flooded homes.

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Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman told residents in a post on Twitter that there were more than 500 calls for help.

“Sit tight, we know many of you need help,” Hoffman wrote.

Searching for loved ones became more difficult as cell phone services were often cut.

“A lot of downed trees, a lot of flooding everywhere. We’re trying to get my daughter,” Terri Byrd said in a vehicle in a Walmart parking lot trying to get cell service after spending the night at an elementary school in Venice.

Across the region, officials and residents spent the morning assessing the damage.

In Punta Gorda, a town directly in the path of the hurricane, trees, debris and power lines covered roads, although many buildings remained standing, having withstood the storm’s onslaught better than many had feared

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“It was crazy,” said local landscaper Jeffrey Chambers, 53, noting the storm brought sideways rain and whiteout conditions. “I said, ‘Please stop already, stop’. And it just kept going and going.”

In the Orlando area, about 170 miles northeast of where Ian made landfall, emergency workers waded through waist-deep water to bring residents and pets to dry land, video clips on Twitter showed.


Ian, now a tropical storm, weakened as it moved across Florida but was still producing strong winds, heavy rain and storm surge, including in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, the National Weather Center said Hurricanes of the United States.

The storm, with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (100 km/h), was located about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Cape Canaveral, the Miami-based forecaster said. It was expected to reach the Atlantic coast Thursday afternoon, unleashing heavy rain and threatening to cause more widespread flooding. Up to 30 inches (76 cm) of rain was expected to fall in parts of central Florida, the hurricane center said.

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President Joe Biden spoke with DeSantis on Thursday and said his administration was committed to continuing close coordination and that Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Deanne Criswell will be in Florida on Friday. Biden said he will travel to the state when conditions permit.

Biden also approved a disaster declaration, making federal resources available to counties affected by the storm.

Read more:

Maps: Hurricane Ian slams Gulf Coast

Worst hurricanes in Florida history as Ian points

How hurricanes cause dangerous and destructive storm surges

How climate change is fueling hurricanes

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Venice, Florida; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Kanishka Singh and Tyler Clifford in Washington, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Angus MacSwan and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Will Dunham and Lisa Shumaker)



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