Hurricane Ian unleashed "historic" devastation in Florida, leaving a yet unknown number of dead in its wake, officials said Thursday, as the storm restrengthened in the Atlantic on a path toward the Carolinas.
The storm, one of the most powerful ever to hit the United States, left hundreds of people in need of rescue, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, while warning it was still too early to get a clear picture of the death toll.
"We absolutely expect to have mortality from this hurricane," he said at a press conference Thursday evening.
President Joe Biden, after a briefing at FEMA emergency management headquarters in Washington, said "this could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida history."
The numbers "are still unclear, but we're hearing reports of what may be substantial loss of life," he added.
DeSantis said concrete information about casualty numbers could be expected "in the coming days."
Fort Myers, where Ian made landfall as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday, took much of the brunt of the storm, as streets became rivers and seawater poured into houses.
Dozens of boats moored in the marina were sunk while others were tossed on to downtown streets.
Trees were toppled by the howling winds of up to 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour).
After weakening as it worked its way across Florida, Ian regained its Category 1 status in the Atlantic and was expected to make a turn towards the Carolinas where it would again cause "life-threatening flooding, storm surge and strong winds," the National Hurricane Center said Thursday night.
Earlier in the day, DeSantis described the destruction in the southwest part of his state as a "500-year flood event."
"We've never seen storm surge of this magnitude," he said.
Tom Johnson, 54, of Fort Myers had a front row seat to the destruction from his apartment on the second floor of a two-story harbourside building.
"I was scared because I've never been through that," Johnson told AFP. "It was just the most horrifying sounds with debris flying everywhere, doors flying off."
His home was undamaged but one of his neighbors, Janelle Thil, 42, was not so lucky and had to ask other residents for help after her ground floor apartment began to flood.
"They got my dogs and then I jumped out of the window and swam," Thil said.
When Thil returned to her apartment after the storm passed, she said she opened the door and "had to wait about five minutes for all the floodwaters to come out."
"I loved my home," she said. "But I'm alive and that's what matters."
According to DeSantis, the area was also dealing with a water main break, which officials were "working to troubleshoot."
A US Coast Guard official said helicopter crews were plucking people from the rooftops of homes inundated by floodwaters.
Eighteen migrants were missing from a boat that sank during the hurricane on Wednesday, though nine others had been rescued, the Coast Guard said. Among them were four Cubans who swam to shore in the Florida Keys.
Ian regaining strength
Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm overnight but the NHC said it regained Category 1 hurricane strength on Thursday afternoon and issued a hurricane warning for the entire coast of South Carolina as well as portions of Georgia and North Carolina.
"Ian could strengthen a little more before landfall" on Friday, the NHC said, adding that it will likely "rapidly weaken over the southeastern United States late Friday into Saturday."
Biden has declared a "major disaster" in Florida, a move that frees up federal funding for storm relief.
"We're continuing to take swift action to help the families of Florida," he tweeted. "I want the people of Florida to know that we will be here at every step of the way."
Much of Florida's southwest coast was plunged into darkness after the storm wiped out power.
Tracking website poweroutage.us said 2.3 million homes and businesses remained without electricity in the so-called Sunshine State late Thursday.
Two barrier islands near Fort Myers, Pine Island and Sanibel Island, popular with vacationers, were essentially cut off when the storm damaged causeways to the mainland.
Sanibel Island got "hit with really biblical storm surge," DeSantis said, and rescuers were using boats and helicopters to evacuate residents who rode out the storm.
Mandatory evacuation orders had been issued in many areas of Florida ahead of Ian, with several dozen shelters set up.
Airports stopped all commercial flights, and cruise ship companies delayed or cancelled voyages.
Before pummelling Florida, Ian plunged all of Cuba into darkness Tuesday after downing the island's power network.
At least two people died in Pinar del Rio province, state media in the country of more than 11 million reported.
Human activity has caused life-threatening climate change, resulting in more severe weather events across the globe.