Hurricane Ian has battered the coast of Florida with winds of up to 150 miles per hour, with Governor Ron DeSantis warning of “catastrophic flooding” and “life-threatening” waves of up to 12 feet. More than two million homes have been left without power, while residents of the US state have been told it is now too late to evacuate, and to brace themselves for a difficult few days.
Republican Governor Mr DeSantis said: “It’s no longer possible to safely evacuate. It’s time to hunker down and prepare for this storm.
“This is a powerful storm that should be treated like you would treat it if a tornado was approaching your home.”
He added: “A storm of this magnitude will produce catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge on the Gulf Coast of Florida.”
Initially, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Ian was packing winds of up to 150 mph, making it one of the most intense storms to strike the US mainland in recent years. Within eight hours of its arrival, the NHS downgraded it to Category 1 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with top sustained winds of 90 mph.
Nevertheless, the sprawling, slow-moving weather system continued to dump vast quantities of water on the state as it crept farther inland, threatening extensive additional flooding. Up to 30 inches (76 cm) of rain was forecast to fall on parts of central Florida, the NHC said.
Mr DeSantis, who asked US President Joe Biden to approve a major federal disaster declaration providing state-wide US emergency aid, added: “This storm is doing a number on the state of Florida.”
Ian had generated life-threatening storm surges – waves of wind-driven seawater rushing in along the coast – of up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) in some places, he continued.
There were no official reports of storm-related fatalities or serious injuries but an unspecified number of people were known to be stranded and in need of help in “high-risk” areas after choosing to ride out the storm at home rather than heed evacuation orders. Mr DeSantis admitted they were beyond the immediate reach of rescue crews, DeSantis said.
Meanwhile forecasters warned of intense thunderstorms and possible tornadoes.
Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service, said: “This is a storm that we will talk about for many years to come, an historic event.”
Separately, US border authorities said 20 Cuban migrants were missing after their boat sank off the Florida coast as Ian neared the coast yesterday.
At 10 pm EDT on Wednesday, strong gusts and horizontal rains were still lashing Venice, Florida, a city of about 25,000 residents some 32 miles northwest of where Ian had first came ashore at the barrier island of Cayo Costa seven hours earlier.
Larger structures remained mostly intact, but small, residential areas off of Highway 41, a major artery through the area, were left in a shambles.
Downed trees and power lines covered roadways to the point that the asphalt was not visible, roofs were ripped off of some homes, and water was pouring into neighbourhoods from seemingly all directions.
A large open lot in front of a Winn Dixie grocery store became a lake, with white-capping waters reaching the trunks of some the cars parked there. Power was out in larger swaths of the area, with communications nearly impossible in many spots.
Ian was forecast to weaken further as it crossed the Florida peninsula on a northeasterly track, and was expected to reach the Atlantic Coast on Thursday afternoon, possibly as a tropical storm, according to the NHC.
Video images of the storm’s fury on local TV and social media showed floodwater nearly reaching rooftops in some communities, sweeping away cars and the ruins of homes as palm trees were bent almost in half.
By comparison, Hurricane Michael came ashore in Florida’s panhandle in 2018 with steady winds of 155 mph, while Ida last year packed sustained winds of 150 mph when it landed in Louisiana.
Earlier this week, more than 2.5 million residents were told to evacuate. Many mobile home residents took refuge in local schools and other facilities converted to emergency shelters. The area’s numerous assisted-living facilities were mostly evacuated, too.