“We absolutely expect to have mortality from this hurricane,” DeSantis said. “Just be careful, people, there is a process by which this is confirmed.” He added that “people have said certain things” about the victims which “is not something that has been confirmed at this stage”.
His comments came after President Joe Biden earlier in the day said initial reports indicated Ian had caused significant loss of life, saying “this could be the deadliest hurricane in the history of Florida”. Florida’s deadliest hurricane on record was the Okeechobee Storm of 1928, which killed more than 2,500 people in the state.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told “Good Morning America” early Thursday morning that the deaths “are in the hundreds.”
Ian, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, unleashed winds of 150 mph when it crashed ashore on Wednesday, causing what DeSantis described as a “500-year flood”. At least 15,000 people sheltered in place during the storm. Before it made landfall, more than 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders. Nearly 2.5 million people remain without power as of Thursday evening, although at least 500,000 have been restored.
Flood waters in some of the hardest hit areas exceeded 6 feet; videos on social media showed water bursting through doors and swelling up to the second floors of homes. Pieces of bridges collapsed in the water and massive trees fell, contributing to power outages across the state.
“Lee and Charlotte [counties] are essentially off the grid at this point,” DeSantis said Thursday during an earlier press briefing.
DeSantis said the state has launched efforts to eventually rescue thousands of people stranded in their homes by historic flooding. Biden also declared a major disaster in Florida, which comes with federal assistance to supplement state, local and tribal recovery efforts in storm-affected areas.
“You’re looking at a storm that changed the character of a significant part of our state,” DeSantis said. “And it’s going to take not only an emergency response now in the days or weeks to come – it’s going to take years of effort to be able to rebuild and come back.”
DeSantis remained optimistic that rescue efforts could reach those stranded by floodwaters.
“We obviously hope they can be rescued at this point, and I know the people there, those are the areas they want to take action on,” DeSantis said.
About 28 Chinook helicopters carry out rescue missions in the hardest hit areas. The state has also deployed 100 engineers to assess damage to bridges, including the Sanibel Causeway and the Pine Island Bascule Bridge, which are not passable, DeSantis said.
By Thursday night, the storm had moved across the Atlantic east of Florida and was heading toward Georgia and the Carolinas. It also became a hurricane again.
In a hard-hit Lee County hospital system, Ian cut off the public water supply and caused widespread power outages. Florida Hospital Association CEO Mary Mayhew said Lee Health, which includes Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, had to evacuate 1,000 patients as of dawn Thursday. The statewide medical community descended on the area as rescuers moved patients to facilities outside the area that were willing to help.
The governor and Biden spoke Thursday morning about the storm after Biden declared Ian a major disaster, opening up more state aid and individual assistance to residents of nine counties. Biden also spoke with Cecil Pendergrass, a Lee County commissioner.
Biden will send FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to Florida on Friday to “verify” the response and assess where Florida needs more support. “The president and the governor are committed to continuing close coordination,” White House officials said during a reading of the appeal.
Federal aid released by the president could include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other disaster recovery assistance programs.
Criswell said Thursday that “we have reports of deaths” in Lee County, including from the sheriff, and that “they expect the number to increase.”
“What I know right now is that Lee County was basically ground zero for impacts from Hurricane Ian,” Criswell said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “And we know we’re going to have catastrophic impacts in that region.”
The FEMA administrator said officials would gather post-storm imagery as soon as it was safe to fly to further assess the largest impact areas and “put boots on the ground in areas that need it the most.”
The White House said in its disaster statement that damage assessments are continuing in other areas of the state, “and additional areas may be designated for assistance once assessments are complete.”
Biden’s endorsement comes a day after DeSantis formally requested the declaration of a statewide disaster. The entire Florida congressional delegation also wrote to Biden in support of DeSantis’ request.
“This historic hurricane will continue to impact the state for some time to come, and the full extent of the damage will not be known for days. However, approval of this statement request will allow Floridians to be better prepared for the recovery phase,” lawmakers said in a letter, led by Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
The state has activated 5,000 National Guard troops to help with recovery efforts. At least 40,000 workers were on standby to help restore power.
About 3,000 rescue efforts were underway in Lee County, Scott said Thursday. In Naples, Scott said, “the whole city” was inundated, with water “from the bay to the gulf,” and local first responders have already lost two brand-new fire engines in the flooding.
“So the process right now – unfortunately I’ve done it enough times that I can tell you the process – the first thing you have to keep everyone safe, you have to save everyone” , Scott said.
Karen Baughman, 81, of Fort Myers, was unable to evacuate her home before the hurricane hit and was hunkered down in her home on Wednesday. She said she felt safe and there was no flooding in her neighborhood.
“I’ve been through three hurricanes here and only once have I had to go to a shelter,” she said in an interview. “My house felt safe. It always looked worse – the predictions – than it was. And I didn’t really know where I was going.
Zack Colman, Andrew Atterbury, Tanya Snyder and Bruce Ritchie contributed to this report.