FORT MYERS, Fla., Sept 30 (Reuters) – A resurgent Hurricane Ian tracked into South Carolina on Friday, a day after carving a path of destruction across the Florida peninsula, washing away homes, causing collapse of a causeway and blocking thousands of people along the state’s Gulf Coast.
The hurricane resulted in at least 21 confirmed and unconfirmed fatalities in Florida, Kevin Guthrie, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, said during an early morning briefing. It was the first time that a state official offered an estimate of the human toll.
Ian, which had weakened to a tropical storm as it marched through Florida, upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane on Thursday as it tracked toward South Carolina with maximum sustained wind speeds of 85 mph ( 140 km/h), the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
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The hurricane was expected to hit low-lying north of Charleston around 2 p.m. ET (1800 GMT) Friday, bringing flooding, storm surge and life-threatening winds. Hundreds of miles of coastline, stretching from Georgia to North Carolina, were under hurricane warnings.
Authorities in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina have urged residents to prepare for hazardous conditions.
Mid-morning Friday in Charleston and Charleston County, South Carolina, everyone was ordered off the roads and Charleston International Airport was closed due to high winds.
Kelsey Barlow, spokesperson for Charleston County, home to more than 400,000 residents, said the county has two shelters open and a third on hold.
“But it’s too late for people to come to the shelters. The storm is here. Everyone needs to shelter in place, stay off the roads,” Barlow said.
Barlow said a storm surge of more than seven feet was expected, in addition to the midday high tide which could bring another six feet of water, causing massive flooding.
With the eye of the storm still hours away, torrential rains had already arrived in Charleston. Video clips on social media showed several inches of water on some streets in the historic port city, which is particularly prone to flooding.
Charleston is particularly at risk. A report commissioned by the city and released in November 2020 found that approximately 90% of all residential properties were vulnerable to storm surge flooding. Parts of northeastern South Carolina near Charleston could also see up to eight inches of rain.
Even so, the expected storm surges were not as severe as those emitted by the NHC when the storm approached Florida. Edisto Beach, South Carolina, a resort destination about 30 miles south of Charleston, was expected to see a rise of four to seven feet. That compares to 12-foot surges reported earlier in the week for parts of the Gulf Coast.
Two days after Ian landed on the Gulf Coast of Florida, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the continental United States, the extent of the damage was becoming increasingly apparent.
“Obviously he packed a big punch,” Governor Ron DeSantis said during the briefing.
“The response was very, very quick,” he said. “I think that answer made a difference.”
Some 10,000 people were missing, Guthrie said, but many were likely in shelters or without power, making it impossible to register with relatives or local authorities. He said he expected the number to decline “organically” in the coming days.
Fort Myers, a town near where the eye of the storm first landed, took a heavy hit, with many homes destroyed by 150mph winds and powerful storm surge. Offshore, Sanibel Island, a popular destination for vacationers and retirees, was cut off when a causeway was rendered impassable.
Hundreds of beleaguered Fort Myers residents lined up at a Home Depot that opened early Friday in the city’s east end, hoping to buy cans of gas, generators, water in bottle and everything they needed to survive. The line stretched for 100 meters.
Many said they felt the city and state governments were doing everything they could to help people, but said the lack of communication and uncertainty about how they would continue to live in the region weighed heavily on them.
Sarah Sodre-Crot and Marco Martins, a married couple and both 22 years old, immigrated from Brazil with their families five years ago, in search of a better life than at home. They weathered the storm at their home east of Fort Myers.
“I know the government is doing everything it can, but we feel lost, like we don’t have answers. Will the energy return in a week? In a month? We just want to know so we can plan our lives a bit,” Sodre-Crot said.
About 1.99 million homes and businesses were left without power on Friday, according to tracking service poweroutage.com. Ian has reached over 3.3 million customers since joining on Wednesday.
Ian first made landfall on Wednesday afternoon when it slammed into the barrier island of Cayo Costa off Florida’s Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (241 km/h).
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Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Rich McKay, Brendan O’Brien and Frank McGurty; Written by Brendan O’Brien and Frank McGurty; Editing by Mark Porter
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