TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — More than 2 million people were left without power Thursday as Ian swept through Florida, bringing catastrophic flooding and winds to large areas of the state in what some are predicting could be one of the worst storms to ever affect the Sunshine State.
Images and videos broadcast on television and shared on social media showed scenes of flooding and destruction. Streets and even houses appeared flooded while trees looked as if they were torn from the ground.
Gov. Ron DeSantis warned that the storm, which weakened to a tropical storm, will cause extensive damage and widespread power outages, with full restoration efforts likely taking weeks. By Thursday morning, more than 2 million people were without power, representing 16 percent of the state.
Ian, which at one point neared Category 5 strength, made landfall around 3 p.m., near Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast. The National Hurricane Center reported that it’s already causing “catastrophic storm surge, winds and flooding” along the Florida peninsula.
“You’re going to see more power outages as the storm moves through the center part of our state and before it exits into the Atlantic coast,” DeSantis said during a Wednesday evening news conference.
During an appearance later Wednesday night on Fox News, the Florida governor said the storm will bring “one of the biggest flood events we've ever had. What remains to be seen is how much damage the wind did. Obviously it's very significant."
Florida emergency officials in Tallahassee received a handful of reports that Ian had damaged or destroyed structures but DeSantis expected that the state would face much more damage as the storm pushed across the state. Ian already knocked out communications service to the 911 call centers in Hendry and Glades counties, DeSantis said.
“Calls are being answered and the people that are calling are being noted,” DeSantis said. “And then those local first responders will deploy as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
DeSantis said crews may need to conduct major reconstruction projects that could take weeks, meaning scores of residents could be without power for a long time. The storm has already left devastation in its wake, including knocking out power to the entire island of Cuba.
More than 2.5 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes ahead of the storm, but it’s unclear how many headed for higher ground. The state is gearing up for search and rescue operations that could arise due to flooding. More than 5,000 national guard troops have been activated, and 40,000 workers in electricity services were on standby to help get power back to residents.
As a sign of how immediate the threat of the storm was to residents on Wednesday, Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie warned people in the Fort Myers area during the afternoon that they were in the eye of the storm and the worst of the hurricane will come back.
“If you can hear us, if you can see us on your TV, you’re most likely to have a bright sunshiny area here very soon,” Guthrie said. “You’re in the eye of the storm — stay inside, stay indoors, do not go outside.”
DeSantis also said that he was asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse 100 percent of recovery costs over the next 60 days. The first expenses are usually debris-removal costs, which are by far the most expensive. FEMA will typically pay for 75 percent of a state’s recovery costs, and the remaining 25 percent is split between the state and local governments.
“This is a major, major storm,” he said at an earlier press conference. “It will have major, major impacts.”
On Thursday morning, Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Florida and ordered federal aid for affected areas.
DeSantis and President Joe Biden regularly trade barbs over a host of issues, including immigration and Covid mandates, but appear to be working together during this natural disaster. Biden on Wednesday said he spoke with DeSantis “for some time” and his team has been in constant contact with the governor.
“We are on alert and in action. Approved every request Florida has made for temporary assistance, emergency assistance long term assistance,” he said in Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday night, DeSantis said Biden offered assistance and that he wanted to be helpful. Only Biden can approve FEMA to reimburse 100 percent of Florida’s storm recovery costs, but DeSantis said Biden invited him to ask for help.
“And he said to ask for what ever you need, just ask us,” DeSantis said. “So he was inviting us to request support.”
Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott, who served as the state’s governor for two terms and oversaw the response to four hurricanes, is also a consistent critic of the Biden administration. But on Fox News on Wednesday, he praised Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell and FEMA for its response.
“I talked to the administrator of FEMA yesterday. She is committed. A class act. She does a great job,” he said. “The first thing is FEMA has to do their job. I believe they will.”
“My belief is each federal agency will do their job and part of my responsibility is to make sure they’re doing their job,” he said.
The National Hurricane Center warned Wednesday that Ian was triggering “destructive” waves off Florida’s coast clearing between 12 and 16 feet above ground level from Englewood to Bonita Beach.
Criswell, speaking on MSNBC on Wednesday, also warned residents in evacuation areas to stay in place if they haven’t left their homes. She emphasized that they have “moved the right personnel and the right resources in place to make sure that we can respond immediately, especially for those life-saving efforts.”
Criswell said later on CNN that there is a “robust search and rescue capability” stationed in Miami featuring members from the Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal and state officials.
DeSantis said that while not everyone followed evacuation orders, most people heeded the warnings and are taking the threat seriously.
“There’s gonna be a lot of fallout from this in terms of getting people back on their feet,” DeSantis said. “Right now, it’s about safety.”
The Florida governor likened Ian to Hurricane Michael, a category 5 storm that rocked Florida’s panhandle in 2018 and had a devastating effect on local communities.
“This is going to be one of those historic storms, and it’s going to really shape the communities in southwest Florida and have a profound impact on our state,” DeSantis said. “So we just ask people for their thoughts and their prayers.”
Kelly Garrity and Olivia Olander contributed to this report.