Hurricane Ian has caused unprecedented damage after trapping people in flooded homes and leaving more than two million people without power, the Florida governor says.
Ron DeSantis called the damage “historic” and disaster officials believe thousands could be displaced in the long run.
US President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster and released federal funds to pay for measures such as temporary housing for IDPs.
Ian was a category four storm with winds of up to 150 mph when it hit southwestern Florida on Wednesday, making it the collective fifth strongest hurricane to hit the Americas.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told US media the death toll could run “in the hundreds” and he had received thousands of 911 calls.
“It crushed us,” Sheriff Marceno said. “We still don’t have access to many of the people who are in need.”
But the Florida governor said the comment was speculation based on the deluge of 911 calls and he hoped many of those people would have stayed safe.
Mr. DeSantis said there have been two unconfirmed fatalities so far that may have been related to the storm.
One is believed to be a 72-year-old man killed near Daytona Beach after going outside during the storm to drain his pool.
Electricity continued to go out for 2.6 million in Florida early Thursday morning, according to website Power Outage VS.
In some areas there was virtually no mobile telephony and the internet connection was also affected.
“Portable towers are on their way for cell service. Chances are, your loved ones won’t be able to contact you,” the Collier County Sheriff’s Office said.
“We can tell you it’s going to be a rough day when daylight reveals the aftermath.”
300 trucks with food and water leave
According to the National Hurricane Center, on the southwest coast from Englewood to Bonita Beach, there was a “serious and imminent” storm surge as high as 10 feet, including “destructive waves.”
Similar warnings telling people to “seek higher ground now” were in effect on other parts of the Florida coast.
In Port Charlotte, about 65 miles south of Tampa, the surge flooded a hospital emergency room and ripped off part of the intensive care unit’s roof.
“We’ve never seen a flood like this,” the Florida governor said at a media conference Thursday morning.
“We’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude — and it hit an area where there are a lot of people… It will eventually wreak havoc on many people’s homes.”
DeSantis said bridges were inspected for safety, but the causeway to Sanibel Island was impassable after a stretch fell into the sea, cutting off more than 6,000 people.
More than 300 trucks of food and water are also being sent to southwestern Florida, officials said, warning the storm remained a major threat to the state.
Thousands of people could be displaced in the long term because of the “catastrophic” damage, Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN.
Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm early Thursday, but was predicted to return to near-hurricane-force winds later, ahead of a second predicted landfall in South Carolina on Friday.
On his way to the US, Ian hit Cuba and… cut power to nearly all 11 million residents of the island.