Shocked Florida communities on Saturday faced the full scale of the devastation brought by Hurricane Ian, as the death toll from one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States climbed steadily into the dozens.
Rescuers were still searching for survivors in submerged neighborhoods and along the state’s southwest coast, where homes, restaurants and businesses were ripped apart when Ian roared ashore as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday.
The confirmed number of storm-related deaths stood at 25 statewide, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, but reports of additional deaths were still emerging county by county — pointing to a far higher final toll.
Hard-hit Lee County alone recorded 35 fatalities, according to its sheriff, while US media including NBC and CBS tallied more than 70 deaths either directly or indirectly related to the storm.
In the coastal state of North Carolina the governor’s office confirmed four deaths related to the storm there, in a sign of the stunning scope of monster Ian.
On Saturday in Florida’s Lee County, rescuers and ordinary citizens in boats were still saving the last trapped inhabitants of the small island of Matlacha — where debris, abandoned vehicles and downed trees littered the pummelled hamlet’s main street and surroundings that are dotted by colorful wooden houses with corrugated roofs.
The community, home to some 800 people, was cut off from the mainland following damage to two bridges, and those who fled early were only just beginning to return home to survey the destruction.
Sitting in the shadow of a deserted Matlacha house, Chip Farrar told AFP that “nobody’s telling us what to do, nobody’s telling us where to go.”
“The evacuation orders came in very late,” the 43-year-old said. “But most people that are still here wouldn’t have left anyway. It’s a very blue-collar place. And most people don’t have anywhere to go, which is the biggest issue.”
Sixteen migrants also remain missing from a boat that sank during the hurricane, according to the US Coast Guard. Two people were found dead and nine others rescued, including four Cubans who swam to shore in the Florida Keys.
More than one million customers remained without power in Florida Saturday evening, hampering efforts by those who evacuated to return to their homes to take stock of what they lost.