Historic Hurricane Ian has already killed “hundreds” of people in Florida, a sheriff in the hardest-hit region revealed early Thursday — but the death toll is expected to swell as Floridians wake up to assess the true extent of the destruction in daylight.
“This is a life-changing event for all of us,” Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told “Good Morning America.”
“I don’t have confirmed numbers — I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds,” he added.
“So far, confirmed in the hundreds,” he said, noting that conditions were too dire for his officers and other rescuers to get a true sense of the disaster.
“There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued. And again, cannot get a true assessment until we’re actually on scene assessing each scene, and we can’t access people, that’s the problem,” he said.
The sheriff warned that rescue crews are going to “see things they’ve never seen before” as he noted the masses of drownings.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais had said late Wednesday that the storm was “too strong” for officials to properly survey the damage.
“We are beginning to get a sense that our community has been, in some respects, decimated,” he said that night.
More than 80% of the area was also without power, further hampering any rescue attempts, County Commissioner Kevin Ruane had said. As of early Thursday, more than 2.5 million people across Florida were without power.
“My heart goes out to them,” Ruane said of the trapped. “We will try to help them as soon as we can. We will get to them.”
The horrific hint of human devastation emerged as President Biden declared a major disaster in Florida, enabling federal aid to the hardest-hit areas, including Lee County.
“Damage assessments are continuing in other areas, and additional areas may be designated for assistance after the assessments are fully completed,” the White House said.
It came as Ian was downgraded early Thursday to a tropical storm, though it could still grow again to hurricane winds with potentially “record flooding.”
The National Hurricane Center warned in a 5 a.m. update that the “danger of life-threatening storm surge” remains for the rest of Thursday and Friday throughout much of Florida as well as Georgia and South Carolina.
Despite downgrading its strength, the center warned that “hurricane conditions are possible through Friday” in the three states.
“Widespread, life-threatening catastrophic flooding, with major to record flooding, will continue today … through the end of the week,” the center stressed.
“This storm is doing a number on the state of Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday.
In Volusia County, Sheriff Mike Chitwood predicted the recovery effort would be like “something we’ve not seen in this county ever.”
The City of Kissimmee also warned its citizens early Thursday that cops and fire crews “can no longer respond to calls at this time” to “protect the safety of our first responders.”
With winds that had reached 155 mph — just 2 mph below making it a historic Category 5 — the biggest danger remained flooding that left distressing images of whole areas submerged.
At least one hospital emergency room was shown with water running through it — as was the newsroom of local TV station WINK, which was shown with 3 feet of water in parts of it.
The news team had battled to keep coverage live despite the power outages, just to be cut when water gushed in.
“We are like everybody else,” said Tom Doerr, director of local news and content at WINK News. “We are experiencing the same difficulties like everybody else.”
The Florida Department of Corrections also moved 2,500 inmates from 23 prisons in the hardest-hit areas to facilities “better equipped to weather the impacts of the storm.”