TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday said hundreds of people in Southwest Florida have called authorities for help as Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc, and that the state is trying to confirm whether two people died in the storm.
The governor said reports of numbers of fatalities were unconfirmed. But the state is working to verify two deaths that DeSantis said are likely to be “linked to the storm.”
DeSantis said several people on the barrier islands of Lee and Charlotte counties were rescued by helicopter early Thursday morning. The area experienced “massive inundation,” he said. Rescues are also underway in low-lying areas along the Collier County coast and even inland, in areas such as Fort Myers, he said.
“We are hoping that they can be rescued at this point,” DeSantis said at a press briefing in Tallahassee at the state’s emergency operations center.
More than 15,000 people have notified the state that they are sheltering in place in high-risk areas, said Kevin Guthrie, Florida’s emergency management director.
In Lee County, hundreds of people were calling 911 because water was rising in their homes, DeSantis said. Some had to go up to their attics and expressed worry, he said.
“Of course, those folks are now going to be checked on and so I think we will have more clarity about that in the next day or so,” DeSantis said. “My sense is that the water was very, very high. But my hope is that if folks did go higher... we are now in a situation where if you’re there, they want to come get you.”
The causeway to Sanibel and Captiva islands in Lee County was damaged and impassable.
DeSantis warned that the situation remains hazardous and urged people to remain home, saying “help is on the way” in the hardest-hit areas.
At every news conference prior to Ian’s landfall, the governor urged people in evacuation zones to leave. He spoke of the availability of accommodations, through Expedia, and the more than 200 shelters opened by local officials for people. He also conceded that if people were not willing to leave, that was their choice.
“While most people in the evacuations [zones] did leave, there were some that chose to stay,” he said Wednesday. “I was speaking with the sheriff down in Charlotte County, and while most people did leave, they had a number of people that just wanted to hunker down. And at the end of the day, that’s a decision they made knowing that they had the ability to evacuate and knowing what the stakes were. Nevertheless, life-safety operations will commence as soon as it’s safe to be able to identify people who may be in harm’s way and who are in need of assistance.”
The governor emphasized that rescue efforts were planned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, local emergency operations officials, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, Air National Guard and urban search and rescue teams.
He said that at least 31 individuals failed to leave an unidentified barrier island in Charlotte County and that he understood the decision.
“You know, the local officials were not going to grab him by the shirt collar and drag them out of their own house,” he said. “And what we’ve been saying is that if you’re in an evacuation zone, once that order is made, you’re risking potentially your life by staying and people did that. Nevertheless, as much as you may disagree with that decision, if there’s people in harm’s way when the storm passes, that need help, we’re gonna be out there helping folks. I mean, that’s just the way we’re going to do it.”
Guthrie urged people who did not evacuate to complete a survey at Floridadisaster.org. “This is primarily for those who did not evacuate so that we know where you’re at,’’ he said. As of Thursday, more than 15,000 had filled out that form, Guthrie said.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane coverage
WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.