MIAMI (Reuters) – The largely innocuous but sodden remnants of Hurricane Ian swept through Virginia early on Sunday, leaving behind storm-ravaged residents in Florida and the Carolinas facing a disaster recovery expected to cost tens of billions of dollars.
The storm’s human toll was also expected to rise as the waters receded and search teams pushed further into areas initially cut off from the outside world, searching for stranded survivors and the remains of anyone who may have perished.
At least 50 storm-related deaths have been confirmed since Ian slammed into Florida’s Gulf Coast at catastrophic force Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles (240 km) per hour.
Florida accounted for the bulk of the deaths, with 35 tallied by the sheriff’s office in coastal Lee County, which bore the brunt of the storm when it made landfall, and another 11 deaths reported by state officials in four neighboring counties.
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North Carolina authorities said at least four more people had died there. No deaths were immediately reported in South Carolina, where Ian made its second US landfall on Friday.
Moving over land since then, Ian has dwindled to a weakening post-tropical cyclone, with the National Hurricane Center (NHC) lifting all remaining watches and warnings related to the fading weather system on Saturday night.
The NHC said additional heavy rain was possible in parts of West Virginia and western Maryland through Sunday morning, even as “significant flooding to record” was forecast to continue in central Florida.
As the full extent of the devastation became clearer days after Ian hit, officials said some of the heaviest damage was caused by wind-driven ocean surges rushing into coastal communities and razed buildings.
Satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showed beach shacks and a motel lining the shores of Florida’s Sanibel Island had been demolished by storm surge. Although most of the houses appeared to still be standing, roof damage was evident.
Surveys from the ground showed that the barrier island, a popular tourist getaway that was home to some 6,000 residents, was completely devastated, from its infrastructure to its famously idyllic aesthetic character.
“Everything is completely gone,” Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza said. “Our electrical system is virtually destroyed, our sewage system has been severely damaged, and our public water supply is under evaluation.”
The island’s link to the mainland was severed by gaps in the Sanibel causeway bridge, further complicating recovery efforts, Souza said.
After strengthening into a tropical storm late in its march across Florida into the Atlantic, Ian regained hurricane strength and slammed into the South Carolina coast on Friday, making landfall near Georgetown, north of the historic city. Charleston Harbor, with sustained winds reaching 85 mph. (140 km/h).
Numerous roads were flooded and blocked by fallen trees, while several docks were damaged in that area.
Even as they faced a staggering amount of utility repairs and debris removal, authorities were busy searching for the missing.
As of Friday, about 10,000 people were missing in Florida, according to the state’s director of emergency management. He said many of them are likely simply displaced and inaccessible due to power and phone outages.
In Sanibel, crews were heading to the hard-hit eastern end of that island Saturday, “so our situation is we’re still in search and rescue mode,” said City Manager Souza.
City officials were aware of nearly 300 households who did not leave the island as the storm approached and whose whereabouts and well-being were now being verified, he said.
About 996,000 businesses and homes remained without power as of Saturday night in Florida alone, where more than 2 million customers lost power the first night of the storm.
In central Florida, heavy flooding from rivers swollen by rain and runoff appeared much more extensive than wind damage.
Insurers braced for $28 billion to $47 billion in claims for what could be the costliest storm to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, according to US real estate data and analytics company CoreLogic.
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(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Miami and Fort Myers; Additional reporting by Jonathan Drake in Charleston, SC; Kanishka Singh, Sharon Bernstein, Makini Brice, Maria Alejandra Cadona, and Juby Babu; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Kim Coghill)
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