Major disaster declared in Florida after Hurricane Ian hits the US state

US President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster in Florida and pledged federal support after Hurricane Ian swept through the state causing widespread damage and leaving millions without power.

More than 2.6 million utility customers are estimated to have lost power as emergency crews began to assess the destruction from the storm, which made landfall Wednesday on the southwestern coast of the Florida with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, before crossing the peninsula and reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Thursday.

High-velocity winds, damaging waves and a storm surge of up to 18 feet left debris strewn across neighborhoods, toppled homes, trapped people inside buildings and forced businesses and airports to close.

The White House said Biden called Thursday morning Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida who has been one of the president’s harshest critics, to discuss the federal response to the hurricane. Biden said Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will visit Florida on Friday.

The US president said Ian “could be the deadliest storm in Florida history”, with early reports of a “substantial loss of life”. The deadliest hurricane to hit the state before, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, caused 15 direct deaths in Florida and 26 in the United States overall.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm will move north over the Atlantic and hit a second hurricane along the South Carolina coast on Friday.

The NHC warned Thursday morning that “catastrophic and life-threatening urban flooding, with record major flooding along rivers” would continue in central Florida. Similar conditions could be expected in parts of northeast Florida, southeast Georgia and eastern South Carolina starting Friday and continuing through the weekend.

In Naples, about 110 miles west of Miami, officials warned that half of the city’s streets were “impassable” due to flooding and said water levels could rise further. Fort Myers officials said parts of the city were in 3 to 4 feet of water and first responders were trying to help in “emergency and life-threatening conditions.”

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told local television reporters he estimated the death toll in the county at “hundreds” and that there were “thousands of people waiting to be rescued. “, but admitted that he had no confirmed figures.

Sanibel Causeway, a bridge connecting Sanibel Island on Florida’s southwest coast to the mainland, has collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving people stranded.

DeSantis’ office said search and rescue operations had been underway since 1 a.m. Thursday, with the U.S. Coast Guard carrying out “dozens” of rescues overnight. More than 42,000 utility line workers were responding to power outages.

Airlines canceled more than 2,100 US flights on Wednesday and another 1,900 scheduled for Thursday, according to flight tracker FlightAware. Florida is a major destination for US carriers and airports in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Fort Myers are closed. Southwest Airlines, which has a strong presence in Florida, led the cancellations Thursday, cutting 10% of its flights.

Biden’s declaration of a major disaster makes federal funding available to residents of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. The federal government will also cover the costs of debris removal and emergency protective measures for 30 days, the White House said in a statement.

Federal officials are already coping with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico this month, which killed more than a dozen people and left hundreds of thousands more without power.

Global warming is changing the nature of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, making them more frequent and intense due to increases in global temperatures of at least 1.1C resulting from human activity since pre-industrial times .

Additional reporting by Caitlin Gilbert and Steff Chávez in New York and James Politi in Washington and Claire Bushey in Chicago

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