Hurricane Ian’s death toll continues to rise well above 100 people in total as first responders assess the full extent of the damage.
Meanwhile, schools in some Florida counties that suffered through Ian have started to re-open, but in some of the hardest-hit counties, school reopening may still be weeks away.
Nearly 200,000 customers still don’t have power in Florida, a full week after the storm made landfall.
“It’s going to take years for everything to get squared away in the state of Florida to fully recover and rebuild,” President Biden said on Wednesday while visiting Fort Myers to survey hurricane damage.
At least 120 people have been killed in Florida, according to a count of the death toll at CNN. Lee and Charlotte counties in the southwest, which got the full brunt of the storm and some of the most dangerous winds and storm surge, have the highest death toll. There are at least 55 deaths in Lee County alone, the network says.
Five people were killed in North Carolina as Ian dumped heavy rains over the state late last week, according to Governor Roy Cooper’s office.
Data from the state medical examiner obtained by The Washington Post show that the cause of death for dozens of the victims, including many elderly people, was drowning, likely as floodwaters rose from storm surge and rain.
This data is just a subset of the confirmed dead, but one former official said it’s likely a snapshot of the full death toll.
“I don’t want to scare people, but they need to understand: The leading cause of death is going to be drowning,” W. Craig Fugate, a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told the Post.
Other causes of death include lack of access to medical care, blunt impact and vehicle accidents, the paper reports.
Survivors of the storm are recounting harrowing tales of escape and rescue. One couple told CNN that they used plastic containers as rafts to transport their three-month-old baby and cat to a neighbour’s house through floodwaters.
Another man says that he swam through floods to rescue his 84-year-old handicapped mother, whose house was filling up with water.
Even now that the storm’s wrath has passed and the waters have mostly subsided, life will still be far from normal in much of southwest Florida for a long time.
Collier County, Florida, home to Naples, is set to re-open schools on Thursday after closing for over a week from the hurricane. All schools will be open, and all students will be able to get a free breakfast and lunch through the end of October, the school district said.
But other school districts in southwest Florida face a much longer recovery process, and schools will stay closed for a while longer.
The Lee County school district, home to Fort Myers and Cape Coral, is still closed this week and a reopening timeline has not been established. The district says that while some of their buildings are ready for students, others will require major fixes and some “have damage beyond repair.”
Those schools include Fort Myers Beach Elementary, the Sanibel School and Hector A. Cafferatta, Jr. Elementary School in Cape Coral, reports the Fort Myers News-Press. One elementary school on Pine Island is still standing but the island faces serious water and power outage issues that could delay any reopening, the paper adds.
Lee County schools will make an announcement on plans for school reopening on Friday, the district said on Facebook.
The Charlotte County school district is still closed and said that four of its schools are without power. They note that inspectors are assessing the damage, and they hope to have students back in school by 24 October.
DeSoto, Hardee and Sarasota county schools — all in southwest Florida — are also closed “until further notice,” according to the state Department of Education. All other districts in the state have re-opened by this week.
The remaining power outages are also concentrated in southwest Florida, especially Lee, Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota counties, according to poweroutage.us. Lee, Charlotte and DeSoto all still have around 30 per cent of customers without power.
Florida Power and Light, a utility company that provides electricity to around half of the state’s population, says restoration should be “essentially complete” to their serviced areas in southwest Florida by Friday night.
Some of the most-damaged communities may face a longer road to recovery, as the company notes that “thousands of homes and businesses in the region have been so badly damaged that they may not be able to safely receive electrical service.”
Hurricane Ian was one of the strongest storms on record in US history, coming ashore as a near-Category 5 storm with wind speeds up to 150 miles per hour (241 kilometres per hour).
Storm surge reached at least 12 feet in some places (3.7 metres), as pounding rain swamped low-lying areas. The storm weakened as it wreaked havoc through Florida, but later re-strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane before hitting South Carolina and moving into North Carolina and Virginia.
Intense hurricanes like Ian — and the damage and death they can bring — are likely to become even more common as the climate crisis grows. A warmer planet can heat up surface ocean temperatures, creating the perfect conditions for hurricanes to rapidly strengthen into powerful storms.
Hurricane Ian powered up from a small storm to a near-Category 5 storm in mere days, in a process called “rapid intensification” that some scientists have linked to a hotter planet.
A United Nations climate science panel has found that the percentage of cyclones reaching Category 3 or higher has been increasing over the past four decades.