The death toll from Hurricane Ian’s brutal assault on Florida rose to at least 21 by Friday, with more expected in the decimated “ground zero” — as rescue efforts continue and authorities work to recover bodies already spotted in a submerged home, officials said.
“Right now, the number we’re going with is we have 21” deaths, the devastated state’s emergency management director, Kevin Guthrie, told a briefing early Friday.
However, he noted a heartbreaking “identified situation” spotted during a “hasty search” of houses in an area still too dangerous for rescue squads to fully access.
“The water was up over the rooftop,” he said, without revealing the location.
“We had a Coast Guard rescue swimmer swim down into it and he could identify there appear to be human remains — we do not know exactly how many,” he said.
“And we’ve got a couple of other situations where we had that particular type” of nightmare scenario, he said.
Of the deaths listed, only one — in Polk County — was officially confirmed. Another 12 in Charlotte County and eight in Collier County were suspected, but not confirmed, he said.
The tally did not appear to include the 72-year-old man who officials earlier said had drowned while trying to drain his pool in Volusia County.
It also did not include any from Lee County, the area covering Fort Meyers that Gov. Ron DeSantis described as “ground zero” of the devastation.
The area — which officials earlier said was “decimated” by the hurricane — had only been accessible for very preliminary rescue operations, Guthrie said, suggesting more dead will be found.
On Thursday, Lee County officials said at least two people had died on Sanibel Island after Ian wrecked a causeway linking it with Florida’s mainland. Those deaths did not appear to have been included in Guthrie’s tally.
Amid the confusion, President Biden had warned Thursday that Ian “could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.”
“We’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life,” he had said.
Ian had earlier killed at least 3 people on Cuba, where it first made landfall Tuesday.
DeSantis said that as of Friday, only half of the “20,000 Floridians that filled out a shelter-in-place survey” had so far given updates. Thankfully, of those ” all 10,000 said they were safe,” he said.
He stressed, however, that the low response was likely due to mass power outages — with 1.9 million across the state still affected Friday — and shoddy cellphone service amid the widespread destruction.
Rescue crews have gone door-to-door to over 3,000 homes in the hardest-hit areas, he said, calling it “a Herculean effort.”
Already, at least 34,000 Floridians have applied for assistance from FEMA from what DeSantis earlier called “a 500-year flood event.”
“You have people that no longer have homes, And so there’s going to be a wide variety of things that they’re going to need in the coming days, weeks and months,” he stressed.
Ian had hit the Sunshine State with 150 mph winds, just shy of the highest Category 5 ranking for storms raging 157 mph or more.
While it moved over the Gulf Coast, its edges were already drenching parts of South Carolina, which was bracing for a direct hit expected later Friday.
“HURRICANE IAN ACCELERATING TOWARD THE SOUTH CAROLINA COAST… LIFE-THREATENING STORM SURGE AND DAMAGING WINDS ARRIVING SOON,” the National Hurricane Center warned in an 11 a.m. update on the now-Category 1 hurricane with 85 mph max winds.
Hurricane warnings, as well as notices about life-threatening storm surges, were in place across large parts of the state as well as neighboring North Carolina, both of which were already put in states of emergency.