TALLAHASSEE -- Florida officials on Friday gave a glimpse into the death toll following Hurricane Ian: 20 unconfirmed deaths, one confirmed fatality and an unknown number of drownings in one house.
Kevin Guthrie, Florida’s emergency management director, explained during a morning press briefing in Tallahassee that the state is trying to verify whether 20 of the deaths were as a result of the storm, or unrelated causes.
But the number could soon tick up. Guthrie said search and rescue efforts continue and that at least one undisclosed location in Lee County, there is an unknown number of apparent drowning victims. Sanibel and Captiva islands, which Ian cut off from the mainland, are in that county.
“Let me paint the picture for you. The water up over the rooftop and we had a Coast Guard rescue swimmer swim down into it and he could identify what appeared to be human remains,” Guthrie said. “We want to be transparent, but we just don’t know that number.”
President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Ian “could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history,” an assessment that Gov. Ron DeSantis said he did not agree with at a press briefing on Thursday night.
The deadliest hurricane in Florida history was the 1928 storm that struck Palm Beach County, killing more than 2,500 people.
“I don’t think we will be anywhere approaching that,” DeSantis said.
The number of fatalities has been difficult to discern in the wake of the storm, DeSantis said Thursday, but that there is the “potential for significant fatalities.”
The number of people who are missing or in need of rescue also remains unclear. But police and rescue crews have been going door to door checking on people who are visibly in need since early Thursday morning.
About 20,000 people have filled out a survey to notify state officials that they would be sheltering in place. Half of them have been contacted and been reported safe, DeSantis said.
The other half has yet to be reached, Guthrie said. The fact that the state has been unable to reach them does not mean that they are missing, Guthrie explained.
Guthrie said it is going to take some time to reach the remaining 10,000 people, but he said that with rescue efforts underway, the number will “organically shrink day by day.”
They could be missing, safe, or unreachable due to not having access to a phone or power.
Guthrie said the number of missing people will be reported and confirmed by local law enforcement officials — not the state.
DeSantis said there are more than 1,000 rescue personnel going up and down the Southwest Florida coastline, and are increasingly doing more rescues in the inland portions of Charlotte, Lee, DeSoto and Hardy counties.
“So you see these troubling images of just kind of washed out homes on Fort Myers Beach and that is really ground zero and obviously very important,” he said. “But this was such a big storm that there are effects far inland and these rescue personnel are sensitive to that and they’re going to be helping.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath
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.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.