Hurricane Ian: Biden fears 'substantial loss of life' in what could be Florida's 'deadliest' storm

Exactly how dangerous this storm has been will only be known when the true toll becomes clear in the days ahead. ITV News US Correspondent Emma Murphy reports

Joe Biden has warned Hurricane Ian could be the "deadliest" storm in Florida's history, after it made landfall in the US on Wednesday with 150mph winds.

The US president said while numbers were "unclear" officials had heard early reports of what could be a "substantial loss of life".

The first confirmed death in Florida was of a 72-year-old man in Deltona who fell into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said.

Mr Biden praised those involved in rescue efforts, saying: "These are dangerous missions and I'm grateful for the women and men, federal state [and] local government working as one team, risking their lives to save others."

Ian has turned streets into rivers and knocked power out for some two million people across the state. Its strength at landfall was Category 4 and is tied for the nation's fifth-strongest hurricane, when measured by wind speed.

By late Wednesday, the strength had dropped to Category 1 as it moved overland.

Still, storm surges as high as two metres were expected on the opposite side of the state on Thursday.

High winds and torrential rains lashed the Florida coast, flooding and damaging homes

On Wednesday a boat carrying Cuban migrants sank in stormy weather east of the island city of Key West.

The US Coast Guard initiated a search and rescue mission and found three survivors about two miles south of the Florida Keys, officials said.

Four other Cubans swam to Stock Island, just east of Key West, the US Border Patrol said. Air crews continued to search for possibly 20 remaining people.

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office was scrambling to respond to thousands of 911 calls, but many roads and bridges in Fort Myers and the surrounding area were impassable. “It crushed us,” Marceno told ABC’s Good Morning America. “We still cannot access many of the people that are in need.”

Cars damaged from a tornado spawned from an apparent overnight tornado from Hurricane Ian. Credit: AP

In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours holding a dining room table against their patio door, fearing the storm raging outside “was tearing our house apart.”

“I was terrified,” Bartley said. “What we heard was the shingles and debris from everything in the neighbourhood hitting our house.”

The storm ripped away patio screens and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but left the roof intact and her family unharmed.

Aerial photos from the Fort Myers area, a few miles west of where Ian struck land, showed homes torn from their slabs and deposited among shredded wreckage.

Businesses near the beach were completely razed, leaving just twisted debris. Broken docks floated at odd angles beside damaged boats, and fires smouldered on lots where houses once stood.

Staff members begin the clear up operation at HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital after Hurricane Ian

“We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told a news conference.

“The amount of water that’s been rising, and will likely continue to rise today even as the storm is passing, is basically a 500-year flooding event.”

In Port Charlotte, the storm surge flooded a hospital accident and emergency unit, as fierce winds tore part of the building's roof.

Water gushed down onto the ICU, forcing staff to evacuate the hospital’s sickest patients - some of whom were on ventilators - to other floors, said Dr Birgit Bodine of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital.

The hurricane’s centre made landfall near Cayo Costa, a barrier island just west of the heavily populated Fort Myers.

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Law enforcement officials in Fort Myers received calls from people trapped in flooded homes or from worried relatives.

Pleas were also posted on social media sites, some with video showing debris-covered water sloshing toward homes’ eaves.

Brittany Hailer, a journalist in Pittsburgh, contacted rescuers about her mother in North Fort Myers, whose home was swamped by one-and-a-half metres of water.

“We don’t know when the water’s going to go down. We don’t know how they’re going to leave, their cars are totalled,” Hailer said.

“Her only way out is on a boat.”

Scenes from across Florida which is being battered by Hurricane Ian. Credit: AP
A staff member stands in a flooded hallway at HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital, while clothes soaks up water. Credit: Dr. Birgit Bodine,
A truck in Key West pulls a man on a kayak on a low-lying road after flooding. Credit: AP

Hurricane-force winds were expected across central Florida through early Thursday with widespread, catastrophic flooding likely, the Miami-based hurricane centre said.

The storm previously tore into Cuba, killing two people and bringing down the country’s electrical grid.

More than two million Florida homes and businesses were left without electricity, according to the PowerOutage website. Nearly every home and business in three counties was without power.

Sheriff Bull Prummell of Charlotte County, just north of Fort Myers, announced a curfew between 9pm and 6am “for life-saving purposes,” saying violators may face second-degree misdemeanour charges.

The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia all pre-emptively declared states of emergency. Forecasters predicted Ian will turn toward those states as a tropical storm, likely dumping more flooding rains into the weekend.