Nearly 2 million people were without power and crews were preparing to conduct rescue efforts early Thursday as Tropical Storm Ian moved across the U.S. state of Florida.
Forecasters warned of life-threatening, record flooding in the central part of the state with the storm expected to emerge off the northeastern Florida coast into the Atlantic Ocean sometime Thursday before making a second landfall in the southeastern United States.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it expects the storm to weaken throughout Thursday, but that it could near hurricane strength again as it approaches South Carolina on Friday. Forecasters said northeastern Florida and coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina could get 10-20 centimeters of rain, with higher amounts in some isolated areas.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of about 100 kph early Thursday.
It came ashore earlier Wednesday near Cayo Costa as a strong hurricane with maximum sustained winds of nearly 250 kph, along with a powerful storm surge and heavy rains that combined to flood coastal areas.
State emergency officials said crews, including those working by land, sea and air, were ready to launch rescue efforts as day broke Thursday.
Hurricane Ian Swamps Southwest FloridaHurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the U.S., swamped southwest Florida, flooding streets and buildings, knocking out power to 2 million people and threatening catastrophic damage further inland. A coastal sheriff's office reported that it was already getting a significant number of calls from people trapped in flooded homes. Some video showed debris-covered water sloshing toward the eaves of homes. The hurricane made landfall Wednesday afternoon near Cayo Costa, a protected barrier island just west of heavily populated Fort Myers. Though expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it marches inland, Ian's hurricane force winds are likely to be felt well into central Florida.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office said it carried out at least 30 rescue missions Wednesday and cautioned residents that Thursday was likely to be "frustrating and heartbreaking for many" as people began to assess damage from the storm. The county was one of several that instituted overnight curfews.
"We'll be there to help you clean up and rebuild, to help Florida get moving again," President Joe Biden said Wednesday. "And we'll be there every step of the way. That's my absolute commitment to the people of the state of Florida."
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters Wednesday the storm had done "a lot of damage." He praised other states in the region and utility companies that sent crews to help restore power to affected areas.
More than 2 million residents on Florida's west coast were told to evacuate their homes ahead of the storm. Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld are among tourist attractions that shut down their popular theme parks and resorts. The U.S. space agency, NASA, closed the visitors' center at its Kennedy Space Center on Florida's eastern coast, and rolled its massive Artemis 1 moon rocket and Orion space capsule from its launch pad back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, further delaying its much-anticipated test flight by several more weeks.
Biden has issued an emergency declaration for Florida, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts and provide more federal funding.
The hurricane earlier hit western Cuba, killing two people and leaving the entire island without power after its aging electrical grid, which has been struggling to remain operational amid a dire economic crisis, collapsed late Tuesday.
Ian left behind a trail of destruction across Pinar del Rio province, Cuba's main tobacco-growing region, ripping the roofs off homes and buildings and making streets impassable because of downed trees and power lines, and flooding. Authorities evacuated as many as 40,000 people from low-lying areas of Pinar del Rio.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.