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Gov. Ron DeSantis described "historic" damage to parts of the state from the hurricane, which made landfall with winds around 150 mph and caused massive flooding.
Southwest Florida was reeling on Thursday from devastating flooding and wind damage caused by Hurricane Ian. While the storm weakened as it moved inland, it has still drenched areas toward the center and northeast of the state, causing dangerous coastal and river flood conditions, and it is expected to remain on a path that will threaten South Carolina and Georgia in the days ahead.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said that, as of 6 a.m. on Thursday, reports indicated that about 2 million utility customers were without electricity and that two counties, Lee and Charlotte, are "basically off the grid" and would likely require major infrastructure repairs to restore power. He also said the Coast Guard and National Guard had been conducting rescue operations using 28 large helicopters and cautioned that reports of hundreds fatalities in areas the storm hit hardest were not confirmed.
The governor did describe 911 calls that had come in during the height of the flooding where people were going to their attics trying to escape rising water in their homes.
"The damage that was done has been historic," DeSantis said. "We've never seen a flood event like this, we've never seen storm surge of this magnitude."
"We're going to see a lot of images about the destruction that was done in southwest Florida," the governor added.
Portions of a causeway and bridge system linking Sanibel Island, a barrier island, to Florida's mainland had been knocked out. Videos from Wednesday showed the Gulf of Mexico inundating streets and buildings in places like Naples and photos began to emerge on Thursday of catastrophic damage in Fort Myers.
As of early Thursday, the federal government had approved major disaster declarations for nine Florida counties, which clears the way for individuals to access assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. DeSantis said he spoke to President Biden on Thursday morning and told him that the state would be requesting declarations for other counties as well.
The White House said Biden on Thursday morning also spoke with Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, of Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, about how the federal government could assist there.
DeSantis said people were being evacuated from two health care facilities to safer locations, and that the state was working to set up 100 portable cell phone towers in badly damaged areas to restore communications.
Interstate 75, which runs along the state's southwest coast was mostly open, he said, allowing for the movement of supplies and 100 engineers were working in teams of two to inspect bridges for damage. Twenty-six states have offered various support to Florida.
As of 11 a.m. on Thursday, Ian had been downgraded to a tropical storm, and its center had moved into the Atlantic Ocean, north of Cape Canaveral. Maximum sustained winds were around 70 mph with higher gusts. The storm was expected to regain strength and become a hurricane again by evening, before again making landfall.
The National Hurricane Center warned of life-threatening storm surge risks through Friday along the coasts of northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Hurricane-force winds are expected on the South Carolina coast by early Friday and similar conditions are possible Thursday night in Georgia and northeast Florida.
"Major-to-record" river flooding will continue across parts of central Florida, the center also said.
The eye of Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa, Florida around 3 p.m. Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane, with estimated sustained winds of around 150 mph.
"This thing is not done creating damage," DeSantis said. "It's going to end up wreaking havoc in communities across the Southeastern part of the United States."