Sept. 30 (UPI) — Florida residents have begun the monumental task of rescue and recovery as the devastation left by Hurricane Ian came into focus a day after slamming into the Gulf Coast and decimating large swaths of the state.
Nearly 2 million households remained without power Friday afternoon, while thousands more homes have been destroyed by strong winds and floodwaters that were beginning to recede.
As of Friday night, 1.4 million Florida residents were still without power, according to poweroutage.us. Power lines were still down and traffic lights everywhere have gone dark.
Officials have started to lift mandatory evacuation orders that were imposed in at least 12 Florida counties, while others said they would enforce curfews.
According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, mandatory evacuation orders remain in place in Sarasota, Osceola, Lee and Charlotte counties.
In Osceola County, Commissioner Brandon Arrington said Friday afternoon that officials will enforce a mandatory evacuation order for the Good Samaritan Society, a community for 55-plus residents.
“We will be able to enforce this evacuation with a second-degree misdemeanor charge for anyone who refuses to evacuate,” Arrington said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Around 50 people were rescued from the community Thursday.
School districts and state universities across Florida said Friday that campuses would begin to reopen in the coming days, including the Lake County school district on Monday and Osceola County school district on Tuesday.
The University of Florida will reopen Saturday and the University of North Florida on Sunday, followed by several other Florida universities on Monday.
Port Tampa Bay has also reopened and is returning to normal operation, allowing commercial vessel traffic bringing supplies and crucial economic recovery to Florida.
As Hurrican Ian raged, large boats docked on the Caloosahatchee River in downtown Fort Myers had “been thrown around like they were toys,” local officials told CNN.
Downed trees continue to block many roads, along with furniture and boats that floated away amid the storm’s 155-mph winds.
Some homes near the coast remain inundated with ankle- to knee-deep water.
Search-and-rescue teams in all affected cities were beginning to fan out to look for elderly residents who may still be trapped.
Some who stayed behind in the Fort Myers area said they did not evacuate because they believed the storm would make landfall farther north, near Tampa Bay.
Instead, the storm turned slightly south before landfall. Meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the waters of Tampa Bay rapidly fell 5 feet as Ian veered south, sending a devastating storm surge into Lee County.
In Charlotte County, 24 miles north of Fort Myers, officials had cleared the roads enough for rescue and recovery efforts to begin Friday morning.
Commissioner Bill Truex said the county was spared the brunt of the storm.
“Compared to Lee County, I would say we’re blessed, which is hard to say when you see on the ground here … a lot of devastation. We were saved by not getting the storm surge that hit Lee County,” he told CNN. “Some of the neighborhoods are still kind of hard to maneuver through, so I would caution to be very careful.”
More than 500 people were rescued in both counties during the storm on Thursday.
Officials have not yet provided an official toll due to the storm.
Florida Director of Emergency Management Kevin Guthrie reported one confirmed and dozens more unconfirmed deaths Friday, including one in Polk County, 12 in Charlotte County and eight in Collier County.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said on Twitter on Friday that there were 16 storm-related deaths as officials still grapple with assessing the losses from the storm.
Meanwhile, teams in Fort Myers have rescued more than 200 people who were trapped in homes by rising waters. On Thursday, one Lee County hospital was forced to evacuate 1,000 patients after the facility’s water supply failed.
Power was being restored in a few inland areas of Fort Myers, but more than 80% of residents were still in the dark, officials said.
A curfew has been imposed and Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson warned residents to stay indoors because many roads were still unsafe and impassable.
“Until we can get the roads cleared, the power lines secured, I would really love for people to stay home,” he said, according to CNN.
“It’s not safe out there. There are trees still ready to fall. A lot of times, there’s more deaths after the hurricane, from trees falling … people hitting power lines.”
Fort Myers City Manager Marty Lawing said the cleanup will be challenging and take a long time.
“This will be a marathon, not a sprint to get cleaned up,” he said, according to NBC News.
Portions of the Sanibel Causeway bridge have been washed away, marooning the island’s residents from the mainland for the foreseeable future.
The scale of the catastrophe was perhaps most palpable on Fort Myers Beach, where officials described a scene of “total devastation,” with the breezy shopping district just past the Matanzas Pass Bridge completely flattened along with other popular destinations, like Hooters and The Whale.
Estero Boulevard, the main thoroughfare on the beach, remained blocked by debris, trapping senior citizens in their homes and preventing the delivery of critical supplies.
“I don’t know if anyone in Washington can hear this: if you can send help, we need it,” said Fort Myers Beach councilman Dan Allers, according to CNN.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state and said the federal government would cover all costs related to the emergency response.
Farther south in Collier County, which includes Naples and Marco Island, grocery stores were planning to reopen Friday, but the Sheriff’s office warned “the lines will be long and traffic very congested.”
Crews were working to install power generators at intersections where traffic lights are out and drivers are proceeding with caution.
All the Orlando theme parks also closed this week ahead of the storm.