The death toll from Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States, reached at least 51 Sunday as rescue workers continued to search for people trying to get out of their devastated communities, particularly in the hardest-hit waterfront communities in southwestern Florida.
The rescuers were “going house to house… to make sure everyone is accounted for,” Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show.
More than 800,000 customers were still without power in Florida, which bore the worst of the devastation. Ian made landfall Wednesday on the state’s southwestern coast along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the deaths have been recorded in Lee County, which was not in the original path of the first forecasts for the storm’s trajectory. Eventually, Ian blew northeastward across Florida to the Atlantic Ocean side of the state and then veered northward, gathered new strength over the warm ocean water and made U.S. landfall a second time in South Carolina.
“This storm was really dangerous,” Criswell told “Fox News Sunday” in a separate interview. She said one lesson from the storm is that Americans “need to understand what their risk is” of where they choose to live, and that “flood insurance is your best bet” in protecting a family’s assets.
U.S. President Joe Biden will visit the island territory of Puerto Rico on Monday to assess damage there from Hurricane Fiona that also hit last month and then visit Florida on Wednesday.
In the coastal state of North Carolina, the governor’s office confirmed four deaths related to Ian there.
In Florida’s Lee County Saturday, rescuers and citizens in boats were still saving the last trapped inhabitants of the small island of Matlacha. Debris, abandoned vehicles and downed trees littered the pummeled hamlet’s main street and surroundings that are dotted by colorful wooden houses with corrugated metal roofs.
The community, home to about 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.”
CoreLogic, a firm that specializes in property analysis, said wind-related losses for residential and commercial properties in Florida could cost insurers up to $32 billion, while flooding losses could reach $15 billion.
“This is the costliest Florida storm since Hurricane Andrew made landfall in 1992,” CoreLogic’s Tom Larsen said.
Sixteen migrants were missing from a boat that sank during the hurricane, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Two people were found dead and nine others rescued, including four Cubans who swam to shore in the Florida Keys.
Some material in this report came from Agence France-Presse.