IONA, Fla. — Florida residents are grappling with widespread destruction and flooding after Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, amid ongoing search efforts and a death toll that has risen to at least 62.
Across the southwest and central regions of the state, about 800,000 homes and businesses remained without power on Sunday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us. In North Carolina, more than 16,000 customers are still without power.
Meanwhile, several bridges were destroyed, complicating rescue efforts. The causeway to Sanibel, a 12-mile barrier island, was rendered impassable, cutting off the island from the mainland.
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden are planning to travel to Puerto Rico on Monday and to Florida on Wednesday to see hurricane damage, the White House announced late Saturday.
Their visit comes as the president warned that Ian could be Florida’s deadliest hurricane. The confirmed death toll is expected to rise as autopsies are completed and recovery efforts continue.
Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission on Sunday night said the hurricane had caused at least 58 deaths in the state, most of them from drowning. Their tally does not include Charlotte county, where local officials have also confirmed multiple deaths. Many of the victims were older than 60, according to the state’s medical examiners. Bodies were found inside flooded cars, floating in water and on the beach. There were four storm-related deaths in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said.
Officials said 42 of the victims in Florida were found in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Cape Coral. The county does not have running water, and nearly 70 percent of it is without power.
Across the affected region, residents turned to cleanup work on Sunday. Many had waited days to return home amid floods and washed-out roads.
In Iona, a small coastal community between Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach, towering piles of soggy couches, mattresses and kitchen cabinets were strewn across front lawns.
In one predominantly Latino neighborhood, some residents were drying their clothes in the sun. Volunteers drove around passing out cases of water. “Everyone will stay here, but we will clean up and put our stuff outside,” said Luis Hernandez, 33. “But we have no water, no clothes.”
As he helped his parents clean out their house, Rafael Martinez, 15, said the water rose so fast that “everything got destroyed.” He and his family climbed atop a table and chairs to stay above the water, he said, adding that he is thankful that his family — and he thinks all of his neighbors — survived.
Many storefronts were damaged by floodwaters. John Henson, who owns a two-story commercial office in the area, returned to his business to find that someone had broken in during the storm.
“If someone needed shelter or food, I would give them both of these,” Henson said. “But they stole stuff and tried to move stuff from one room to another … and broke and kicked doors down for no reason.”
Henson predicted that this part of Fort Myers “isn’t ever going to be what it once was.”
“You don’t even understand how bad it is until you start driving the side roads,” said Henson, who lived nearby on Shell Point. “It’s just brutal out there.”
In Punta Gorda, 25 miles north of Fort Myers, Johnny Riggs and his family were waiting inside a shelter Saturday night for the power to return to their home in nearby Port Charlotte.
Riggs, 73, said he evacuated with his daughter and granddaughter just before Ian made landfall, going to a shelter near their apartment. When the rain ended, they returned home.
Their building had little damage, but the lack of power in the region made it hard to stay. Food inside the refrigerator was spoiling and there were few restaurants and stores open in the area.
Worse, the building no longer had running water, he said. After three days, the family left the apartment Saturday morning and checked into a shelter at a high school gymnasium that is part of the Babcock Ranch planned community.
“We’d been using bottled water to flush the commode but now that’s all gone,” Riggs said, finishing up a free spaghetti dinner while his daughter, Courtney Riggs-Johnston, and granddaughter Trevlyn, 14, rummaged through boxes of donated clothing.
With long lines of cars outside the few gas stations that had fuel and several roads still closed because of flooding, “I feel like we’re going backwards,” Riggs said.
Even as they promised aid, officials on Sunday acknowledged the long road to recovery. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told ABC News’s “This Week” that Sanibel, the barrier island near Fort Myers, will be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.
“I think our priority now is to identify the people that remain on Sanibel who wanted to stay there, but eventually have to come off because there’s just no way to continue with life there,” Rubio said, adding that it will take “a couple of years at least” to rebuild the bridge that connected Sanibel to the mainland.
Rubio said the total damage was more devastating than anything he could recall in Florida history. “Fort Myers Beach no longer exists. It’ll have to be rebuilt,” he said. “It was a slice of old Florida that you can’t recapture.”
Speaking on the same program, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said emergency workers are “still actively in the search-and-rescue phase” and going “through every home to make sure that we don’t leave anybody behind.”
Several guests on the Sunday morning shows were asked about the need for stricter building codes.
“After this, we’re going to learn that we’re going to have to improve our … building codes,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Criswell echoed the sentiment on the same show, emphasizing that Florida needed to ensure that “as we rebuild, we rebuild more resilient.”
But local officials pushed back, arguing that the current regulations are sufficient. “We have good building codes,” Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said on “Face the Nation.”
“The newer homes, they withstood the storm,” he said, as evidence that the building codes for newer construction were adequate. “The older houses, which were built lower and not up to current codes, they suffered more damage.”
On Sunday, officials also faced a fresh round of questions about how long officials in Lee County waited to make evacuation decisions amid uncertain forecasts in the days before the storm.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno defended the government’s response. “We did exactly what we had to do,” Marceno said during a news conference. He said there was no delay in issuing evacuations. “The second that we could and should issue that order, we did,” he said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) also defended Lee County, telling CNN on Sunday that they were dealing with a storm that shifted course unexpectedly and issued evacuation orders as soon as it was justified.
Asked whether the state would investigate the evacuation orders issued, DeSantis said, “they informed people and most people did not want to do it.”
“That’s just the reality,” he added. “You’re in a situation — are you going to grab somebody out of their home that doesn’t want to? I don’t think that’s the appropriate use of government.”
Flooding is expected to continue across portions of central Florida, causing more destruction and posing a further challenge to cleanup efforts and rescues. Already the storm is estimated to have caused more than $60 billion in property loss in Florida.
Olivo reported from Sarasota and Whalen reported from Washington. Karoun Demirjian, Meryl Kornfield and Amy B Wang in Washington, and Matt Brown in Atlanta contributed to this report.