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Hurricane death toll climbs in Florida

By AI HEPING in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-10-05 08:49

A sign indicates a bridge out on rural road near the Peace River on October 4, 2022 in Arcadia, Florida. [Photo/Agencies]

The death toll in Florida from Hurricane Ian climbed to at least 100 on Tuesday, officials said, as rescue personnel continued to search door to door for survivors almost a week after the storm decimated some areas.

In Lee County, Florida, the death toll reached 55, where local officials waited until the day before Ian made landfall on Sept 28 to issue evacuation orders for the low-lying area while several other counties in the path of the hurricane issued evacuation orders earlier.

The majority of victims in Florida died by drowning, according to the state's medical examiners commission. Another four people died in storm-related incidents as Ian moved into North Carolina.

When Ian made landfall over southwestern Florida, it brought winds of 150 miles per hour, dangerous storm surges and catastrophic flooding.

Rescuers have been looking for trapped residents via boat and aircraft. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said during a news briefing on Monday that there have been 1,900 rescues across the state. He also said there have been more search-and-rescue teams in Florida than have ever been in one location since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Some residents of barrier islands are cut off from the mainland as bridges are washed out, and more than 400,000 customers in Florida still don't have power, according to PowerOutage.us.

Many are homeless from the Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest to ever strike the US, and are dealing with where to live. Many are limited by low or fixed income in a state that is mired in an affordable housing crunch. In counties that were under evacuation orders, less than 20 percent of homes have coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program.

Jeremy Greenberg, chief of the National Response Coordination Center at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the agency has 2,000 people on the ground and hundreds of more workers from other federal agencies assisting in the recovery. He said FEMA crews will stay in the state for as long as needed.

Officials warned that recovery in many areas isn't expected to improve for several days because waterways are overflowing from the storm, leaving the rain that fell with nowhere to go.

Hurricane Ian knocked out several portions of the Sanibel Causeway — the only road that connects the barrier island with the mainland. Nearly 400 buildings were damaged or destroyed in just the northern portion of the barrier island, according to state officials.

"There are a lot [of] places that are not livable. There are places off their foundation, and it's very dangerous out there," Sanibel Fire Chief William Briscoe told CNN on Tuesday. "There are alligators running around, and there are snakes all over the place."

He said that crews have already evacuated 1,000 people from Sanibel since the storm struck.

Pine Island, the largest barrier island on Florida's Gulf Coast, is dealing with similar destruction caused by the hurricane. Supplies and food are being dropped to the island by helicopter. About 130 Florida Department of Transportation trucks have started work on building a temporary bridge to the island, and by the end of the week should be finished on a structure that drivers can traverse at slow speeds, officials said.

Across southwest Florida, residents whose homes were overrun by the sea or floods tossed waterlogged furniture and other belongings into the street and tore out floors and cut into walls, hoping to dry the shells of their houses before mold set in.

"Everything that got water is starting to mold. We're cutting all the drywall out, 2 feet up, trying to get things dried out to save the house and to protect it from more damage," Jeff Rioux told CBS News, thankful for several days of nice weather and generators to run fans.

While officials are still assessing the damage across the state, experts have said that the economic cost could ultimately rise to tens of billions of dollars. So far, insurers have reported about $1.44 billion bn in preliminary claims.

A preliminary forecast from data firm Enki Research published on Oct 1 estimated that total damages will amount to at least $66 billion but could go as high as $75 billion.

Lee County, which includes Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and other communities, bore the brunt of the storm, with nearly 400 buildings damaged or destroyed in just the northern portion of the barrier island.

State and local officials defended the county's decision to delay by one day to issue evacuation orders for the low-lying area.

"Emergency management directors do not have a crystal ball," Kevin Guthrie, head of Florida's emergency management division, said at a news conference.

"They made the best decision on the information they had at the time. And I will never second-guess a local emergency manager on their decision to pull an evacuation order," he said.

Schools in 13 counties remained closed, but all counties in southwest Florida expected to be fully back by the end of the week, state education officials said.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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