FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — With the death toll from Hurricane Ian rising and hundreds of thousands of people without power in Florida and the Carolinas, U.S. officials vowed Sunday to unleash a massive amount of federal disaster aid as crews scrambled to rescue people stranded by the storm.
Days after Ian tore through central Florida, carving a deadly path of destruction into the Carolinas, water levels continued rising in some flooded areas, inundating homes and streets that were passable just a day or two earlier.
With branches strewn across the grounds of St. Hillary’s Episcopal Church in Ft. Myers, the Rev. Charles Cannon recognized the immense loss during his Sunday sermon but also gave thanks for what remained. That included the church’s stained-glass windows and steeple.
“People think they have lost everything, but you haven’t lost everything if you haven’t lost yourself,” he said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Arcadia on Sunday afternoon, about 30 miles inland from where Ian made landfall. The rural area didn’t get the storm surge experienced by coastal communities, but standing water from floods remained four days after the storm.
“This is such a big storm, brought so much water, that you’re having basically what’s been a 500-year flood event,” DeSantis said.
At least 68 people have been confirmed dead: 61 in Florida, four in North Carolina and three in Cuba.
Fewer than 700,000 homes and businesses in Florida were still without electricity Sunday, down from a peak of 2.6 million.
The weakened storm wreaked havoc as it drifted north, with the remnants forming a nor’easter that is expected to dump rain on parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, weather officials said.
In Virginia, rainfall on the already inundated Chesapeake Bay could lead to the most significant tidal flooding event in the Hampton Roads region in the last 10 to 15 years, said Cody Poche, a National Weather Service meteorologist. A handful of coastal Virginia school districts canceled classes Monday, and local officials urged residents to prepare.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the federal government is focusing first on victims in Florida, which took the brunt of one of the strongest storms to make landfall in the United States. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden plan to visit Florida on Wednesday.
Flooded roadways and washed-out bridges to barrier islands left many people isolated amid limited cellphone service and a lack of basic amenities such as water, electricity and the internet. Officials warned that the situation in many areas isn’t expected to improve for several days because the rain that fell has nowhere to go.
Criswell told “Fox News Sunday” that the federal government, including the Coast Guard and Department of Defense, had moved into position “the largest amount of search and rescue assets that I think we’ve ever put in place before.”
Still, she cautioned that dangers remain.
“We see so many more injuries and sometimes more fatalities after the storm,” Criswell said. “Standing water brings with it all kinds of hazards — it has debris, it could have power lines.”
More than 1,600 people have been rescued statewide, according to Florida’s emergency management agency.
In rural Seminole County, north of Orlando, residents donned waders, boots and bug spray to paddle to their flooded homes Sunday.
Ben Bertat found 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water in his house by Lake Harney after kayaking there.
“I think it’s going to get worse because all of this water has to get to the lake” said Bertat, pointing to the water flooding a nearby road. “With ground saturation, all this swamp is full and it just can’t take any more water. It doesn’t look like it’s getting any lower.”
Gabriel Madlang kayaked through several feet of water on his street, delivering sandbags to stave off water creeping toward his doorstep.
“My home is close to underwater,” Madlang said. “Right now, I’m just going to sandbag as much as I can and hope and pray.”
The National Guard and the Coast Guard were flying in helicopters to Florida’s barrier islands to rescue people. On Sanibel Island, the lone bridge to the crescent-shaped island collapsed, cutting off access by car for its 6,300 residents.
An aerial photo posted on social media of Sanibel’s Mad Hatter Restaurant shows a mostly vacant patch of sand where the restaurant used to be.
“The Mad Hatter Restaurant, unfortunately, is out at sea right now,” the restaurant’s Facebook page reads, adding that the staff are all safe. “The best news from this devastating scene is that there is still land for us to rebuild.”
DeSantis said the state will start building a temporary structure this week to restore vehicle access to Pine Island, the largest of southwestern Florida’s barrier islands devastated by the storm.
“It’s not going to be a full bridge, you’re going to have to go over it probably at 5 miles an hour or something, but it’ll at least let people get in and off the island with their vehicles,” DeSantis said.
Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson on Sunday defended Lee County officials from accusations that they were slow in ordering evacuations Tuesday ahead of the storm, a day later than some other counties in the area.
“Warnings for hurricane season start in June. So there’s a degree of personal responsibility here. I think the county acted appropriately. The thing is, a certain percentage of people will not heed the warnings regardless,” Anderson said on the CBS show “Face the Nation.”
In North Carolina, the storm downed trees and power lines. Two of the four deaths in the state were from storm-related vehicle crashes. The others involved a man who drowned when his truck plunged into a swamp and another killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage.