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Ian hits South Carolina as Florida reels from earlier assault

A man stands in front of storm surges in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as Hurricane Ian made landfall in the state on Friday. (Melissa Sue Gerrits for The Washington Post)

ASTOR, Fla. — Hurricane Ian made landfall for the second time this week on Friday, crashing into coastal South Carolina as a Category 1 storm that brought lashing rains and storm surge but appeared unlikely to wreak the sort of devastation that was still emerging in Florida.

There, the vast parameters of the damage became more evident as emergency crews pulled people and bodies from streets — some still flooded and others dry but strewn with wreckage. About 34,000 Floridians had filed for federal emergency aid, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said. At least 23 people had been determined to be victims of the storm as of Friday evening, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said, but officials cautioned that confirming causes of death was a slow and deliberate process and said the toll was likely to rise as medical examiners completed more autopsies.

“We’re just beginning to see the scale of that destruction” in Florida, President Biden said Friday. The disaster, he said, was “not just a crisis for Florida, this is an American crisis.” Indeed, the storm, while weakened, was expected to drive north into Virginia and other East Coast states after crossing over the Carolinas.

Explore aerial images of Hurricane Ian’s damage to the Florida coast

That destruction could be seen across Florida. Damage to a 3-mile causeway cut off Sanibel, a battered barrier island off the Southwest Coast of Florida, from the mainland. DeSantis said barges were ferrying heavy equipment to clear debris there, and a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue team that arrived by helicopter was continuing to go door-to-door on the island and two others nearby, Captiva and Pine Island, after rescuing 42 people on Thursday.

On Sept. 30, Project DYNAMO, a veteran volunteer group that rescues civilians, traveled to Sanibel island to search for and rescue survivors of Hurricane Ian. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Near North Port, south of Sarasota, the impact of Ian’s torrential rains was still building as water overflowing from inland swamps rapidly enveloped homes. Good Samaritans launched boats and kayaks from the berm of the highway to try to rescue stranded residents.

In Central Florida, where Ian dumped more than 17 inches of rain early Thursday, floodwaters caused by rising rivers and lakes, along with some oceanfront storm surge, trapped hundreds of people in their homes. Evacuations from hospitals, assisted-living centers, and low-lying communities continued into Friday. The National Guard and Osceola County sheriff’s deputies were rescuing residents from retirement homes in Kissimmee, south of Orlando, using airboats and trucks with high clearances.

“So far we’ve had to do nearly 300 rescues of people trapped in flooded areas,” Daytona Beach Police Department spokesman Tim Ehrenkaufer said, adding that heavy rains that preceded Ian poised the area for flooding.

“The water was already high, so there was nothing left to absorb it,” he said. “Then the hurricane brought too much rain in too short of time. There was nowhere for all that water to go.”

More than 1.3 million customers in Florida still remained without power, including about 85 percent of Hardee County. More than 33,000 people were staying in 257 shelters, according to a Friday morning update from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Lee County, home to Fort Myers, was without water because of a water main break, DeSantis said; water production facilities were not operating in at least four other counties, and boil-water notices were in effect in 19, FEMA said. Tankers were ferrying water to hospitals in the area, the governor said.

“This is something that is going to be a big deal for a long time,” DeSantis said Friday morning in Lee County, where he described “homes just washing away. Destroyed, yes, but sometimes these things, you see the home and you know it was there — some of these things just disappeared.”

Florida highway officials closed the key transit route in the western part of the state Friday night after floodwaters apparently encroached onto Interstate 75, severing efforts to haul in relief supplies to communities devastated by the storm. In a statement, the Sarasota County sheriff’s office said that I-75 was closed along a 14-mile mile stretch because of flooding.

“We are unsure how long this closure may last,” the department said in a statement.

Earlier, floodwaters had risen rapidly in North Port in the southern part of Sarasota county, leading to scores of rescues. Residents in nearby subdivisions were being picked up on boats and dropped off on both sides of the interstate. Other residents waded through floating nests of fire ants to reach the interstate. As they arrived at the berm of the traffic-clogged interstate, children wearing life jackets, elderly residents in wheelchairs, and other shocked residents gathered until someone could pick them up.

But traffic on Interstate 75 was gridlocked in both directions as evacuees tried to return home at the same time as first responders continued efforts to reach hard-hit communities in Southwest Florida.

Around 5 p.m., Doreen Stone, who is disabled and needs a walker to get around, was sitting alongside the interstate along with several members of her family. Stone, 69 said she had evacuated to North Port from a coastal community during the storm, and then needed to be rescued after floodwaters rose around a family member’s house.

“We went there for safety, and we made it through the storm. It’s the aftermath that gets you,” Stone said.

Throughout the day in North Port, residents widely speculated that the water would continue to rise, threatening both their homes and a crucial transit route. Even before the interstate was closed, motorists’ frustrations were mounting.

One mother pulled over at an interchange so she could feed her baby, only to discover that route was also blocked by floodwater. The woman, who lived in Tampa and declined to give her name, said she had evacuated to Miami earlier in the week and was trying to return. She said the trip from Miami to North Port had taken her 6 hours, about twice as long as usual.

On Friday night, authorities were struggling to divert motorists onto alternative routes, as many highways in that part of Florida remain threatened by rising water around North Port.

Floridians lined up at gas stations in the hardest-hit areas, some of which faced fuel shortages. DeSantis said “massive amounts” of fuel were on their way to the state.

About 10:30 p.m., the Myakka River, north of Port Charlotte, rose above the Interstate 75 bridge that crossed over it, pushed to record levels in the aftermath of Ian’s impact, the Florida Department of Transportation said.

The slowest stretch ran from Port Charlotte to North Port, where GPS devices projected backups of more than three hours. Stuck in the snarl were big rigs hauling food, tractor trailers and passenger cars. One driver, who made a U-turn and drove against traffic on the shoulder, heading for the nearest exit, said he had been stuck in the line for more than two hours.

After weakening over Florida on Thursday and then gaining strength in the Atlantic Ocean, Ian made its second landfall near Georgetown, S.C., at 2:05 p.m., packing 85 mph winds as the first hurricane to strike South Carolina since Matthew in 2016. The National Hurricane Center had warned the storm would bring a “life-threatening” surge and damaging winds, and as it approached, it produced a 4-foot surge in Myrtle Beach and flooded some streets in downtown Charleston.

In the state’s beach towns, residents had prepared for flooding, piling sandbags at the doors of shops and restaurants. Ahead of landfall, President Biden had urged residents to “please listen to all the warnings.” But shortly after the storm came ashore, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) expressed relief.

“A lot of prayers have been answered — this storm is not as bad as it could have been, but don’t let your guard down yet,” he said. “We are not out of the woods yet. There is water on the roads, still heavy winds, and it is still dangerous in many parts of the state.”

Hours later, Ian weakened slightly to become a “post-tropical cyclone,” the National Hurricane Center said, and rain began to ease near the coast as it moved west. But the Hurricane Center said downpours would pelt inland areas even as its winds weakened, with up to 8 inches expected in central South Carolina, North Carolina and southern Virginia.

The center warned early Saturday that the “risk of flash flooding continues over portions of North Carolina and Virginia” from Ian’s heavy rains. As wind speeds decreased, “Ian is forecast to weaken further today and dissipate by early Sunday,” it added.

Most businesses on Folly Beach, a South Carolina island, were closed Friday morning.

Brian Hawkins, stood outside Bert’s Market — which had stayed true to its tagline, “We may doze, but we never close” — with a cup of coffee in hand. The owner of a charter fishing company, Hawkins said he wasn’t concerned about Ian until Thursday, when he began securing surfboards and items in his yard. At 4 p.m., he went to the island’s boat landing to fill up sandbags from the truckload of sand the city provided.

“One truckload was not enough,” said Hawkins, 46. “By 5 p.m., they were out.”

Hawkins said he lost at least three days of fishing charters, but he had seen worse on the island, where he’s spent most of his life.

About 365,000 people were without power in North Carolina early Saturday morning and more than 100,000 in neighboring Virginia, according to data from Wind and rain were strengthening across North Carolina, which had more than 140,000 power outages as of 4:30 p.m. Friday, according to the state’s Emergency Management office.

As Hurricane Ian steamed into the Carolinas, it dredged up traumatic memories of other big storms. But few anticipated a similar scale this time.

“I don’t expect anything crazy to happen, but I’m prepared for more than what’s forecasted,” fishing guide Christian Wolfe, 28, said.

Florence dropped almost 30 inches of rain on Wilmington, N.C., in September 2018 and flooded or washed out every road into the city of 118,000 people. The storm turned the region into an island for more than a week and caused 54 deaths.

Some of those unhappy memories lingered for locals on Friday as the wind picked up and Ian’s track shifted farther east, bearing closer to the region with each new update from the National Hurricane Center. Local officials said they were ready for anything but did not expect a disaster.

“We are far more prepared for extreme weather now than we were during Hurricane Florence,” New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple said Friday morning, as the rain and wind picked up noticeably. The county was opening shelters and convened its emergency operations center to better manage its disaster response, he said.

In the past four years, the county also streamlined its storm watershed. “We can’t stop the water from coming in, but we have made sure that it has an easy way out,” Zapple added.

Still far from clear Friday was the scope of the death toll from Ian. Of the 23 deaths so far confirmed to be caused by the hurricane, 12 were in Lee County, four in Volusia County, three in Collier County, two in Sarasota County and one each in Lake and Manatee counties. Of them, 18 involved drowning, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

That toll is likely to rise in the coming days, as more medical examiners confirm storm-related deaths, said David Fierro, an FDLE spokesperson.

When local medical examiners perform an autopsy and confirm that a death was storm-related, the offices send their reports to the state Medical Examiners Commission. The FDLE total does not necessarily align with reports from local law enforcement, as it only reports the deaths confirmed through the medical examiners commission.

In some parts of Florida, Ian’s aftermath was becoming worse than its direct impact. The storm passed over north central Florida on Wednesday, but on Friday morning, Amber Harper and Dallin Osborne were filling sandbags to try to stop the rising St. Johns River from filling their home.

The 1958 coquina-shell-stone house in Astor weathered the winds from the storm, as did all of the oak and cypress trees on the shore of the river. But the Saint Johns was slowly inching up. It had already wrecked their dock, yard and patio, and it was close to reaching the front door before they put down nearly a dozen 40-pound sandbags.

“When we left yesterday the river was rising, but it wasn’t up to the back door, and now it is,” Harper said of the house her family had owned for more than 30 years. “I was emotional for sure, because I’ve never seen it like this.”

After piling the sandbags in front of the door, their next task was to try to get Harper‘s car out of the flooded front yard.

“We have family over in Daytona Beach, and their house is flooded as well,” Harper said. “Everybody’s just trying to do the best they can to save what they have.”

Rozsa and Craig reported from Florida, Samenow from Washington and Brulliard from Boulder, Colo. Also contributing to this report were Stratton Lawrence in South Carolina, Rory Laverty in North Carolina and Praveena Somasundaram and Andrea Salcedo in Washington.