FORT MYERS, Fla. (CN) — Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s southwest coast on Wednesday night, completely washing away part of a storied island community and devastating cities and towns around the Fort Myers metropolitan area.
One sheriff estimated hundreds of people could be dead due to the storm, but accurate numbers were not available Thursday afternoon.
Forecasters say the hurricane, which made landfall with winds of 155 mph, is one of the worst storms ever to hit the state in modern times.
National Weather Service Director Ken Graham called the hurricane a “historic storm” that “we’ll talk about for many years to come.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis echoed the same sentiments.
"The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that has been done is historic," he said. "We've never seen a flood event like this, we've never seen a storm surge of this magnitude."
The Republican governor said the U.S. Coast Guard is still rescuing people trapped on their roofs several hours after the storm.
In an interview with “Good Morning America” Thursday morning, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said fatalities could be “in the hundreds.”
“I don’t have confirmed numbers,” Marceno said. “I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds.”
Hours later, at a press conference, DeSantis reiterated there was no confirmation on fatalities, but called the sheriff’s comments an “estimate” based on the amount of 911 calls emergency officials received during the storm.
Lee County Manager Roger DesJarlais said, “Our community has been decimated.”
After crossing over the tiny barrier island of Cayo Costa, the Category 4 hurricane crashed into the state just north of the Fort Myers metropolitan area with catastrophic winds and a storm surge of up to 18 feet in some places. Parts of Sanibel Island, one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations, are completely under water and possibly washed away completely. A portion of the only causeway to the island collapsed overnight.
Several feet of water inundated much of Fort Myers, rising to the second story of buildings and deluging vehicles. Videos circulating on social media showed sharks swimming in the streets.
Naples, located 20 miles south, also experienced major flooding.
Due to the destruction and ongoing winds, much of the area’s first responders could not respond to the worst-hit areas until Thursday morning.
“Here’s some tough news you need to know,” the Collier County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook after the storm. “We are in call triage mode. We are getting a significant number of calls of people trapped by water in their homes. Some are reporting life threatening medical emergencies in deep water. … We may have to wait until waters recede.”
As of Thursday morning, Florida’s governor said the Coast Guard has more than two dozen helicopters performing search and rescue operations.
A hospital in Port Charlotte, just north of the storm’s landfall, lost its roof. In Sarasota County, about 50 miles north of Fort Myers, officials reported massive flooding and roofs ripped off warehouses and a theater.
A large swath of the state is without power. An estimated 2.6 million people have been affected throughout the state.
After landfall, Hurricane Ian continued inland as a Category 1 storm causing more flooding hundreds of miles north in Orlando and surrounding areas. As of Thursday afternoon, the storm was drenching the east part of the state near Daytona Beach. In that county, Volusia, the sheriff’s office reported a death by drowning after slipping into a canal.
President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration on Thursday to start the flow of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin coordinating disaster relief efforts.
As Hurricane Ian approached, state officials ordered the evacuation of more than 2.5 million people on the Gulf Coast from Tampa Bay to Fort Myers. Residents and tourists scrambled to prepare for a storm with an unpredictable landfall. Shoppers emptied store shelves of water and nonperishable food. Car lines for sandbags stretched for miles. Gas stations closed when fuel emptied. Several hotels along the coast mandated guests leave.
Hours before the storm hit Fort Myers on Wednesday, in a small trailer park less than 2 miles east of the Sanibel Causeway, Robert Kanehl hunkered down without worry.
“I’m fine,” he said by phone, chuckling. “I have a beautiful young lady sitting beside me.”
A woman’s voice said hello before a gust of wind and a cacophony that sounded like blown wreckage.
“Oh, that’s all my empty beer cans beside me.”
When asked about evacuation, the 81-year-old interrupted: “You know, you wait your whole life to die. I’ve seen three wars and yet I can’t even walk across the road without someone trying to hit me.”
“Nobody should be worried about me,” he continued. “If I get carried away by a hurricane, they can fence all my valuables. Everybody’s happy.”
Kanehl, who does not have a car, said he stayed in the trailer park to help his neighbors – most of them.
“There’s this lady that lives next to me taking videos of all the trees,” he said. “I’m afraid to walk outside, because I got big tree right by my trailer here that branches keep smashing on the ground. Why is she taking videos? You think I would be living in a trailer if I had insurance?”
Asked about flooding debris and gators and snakes, he was unconcerned.
“I see water moccasins all day,” he said. “Don’t bother me.”
Kanehl could not be reached on Thursday.
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