Biden: Ian ‘could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history’

Evan Vucci/AP

President Joe Biden on Thursday warned that Hurricane Ian could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history but pledged that the country would come together to help the state rebuild.

This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history,” Biden said, speaking from FEMA’s headquarters in Washington. “The numbers are still unclear. But we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life.”

Speaking to Good Morning America Thursday, the Sheriff of hard-hit Lee County said “hundreds” may have died in the storm, though the outlet later clarified that the sheriff “didn’t yet know the exact number.” The death toll from Ian remains unconfirmed, according to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

To date, Florida’s deadliest storm event also ranks as the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, after the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane. The official death toll of the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane was 1,836, but local officials estimated it was closer to 3,000.

Biden received a briefing about the hurricane and continuing recovery efforts before speaking.

The president vowed that the country would unite to help the region rebuild.

“My message to the people of Florida and the country is at times like this, America comes together,” Biden said. “We’re going to pull together as one team, as one America.”

The president said he would be visiting Florida afterward, though not until his presence wouldn’t impede rescue and recovery efforts.

Hurricane Ian has left a trail of destruction across southwest and central Florida, knocking out power to about 2 million people and destroying homes, roads, and other critical infrastructure. Some local officials have described the storm as significantly more destructive than Hurricane Charley, which struck the region in 2004 as a Category 4 storm.

Earlier Thursday, the president approved a major disaster declaration for Florida, which allows federal funding to become available for individuals affected by the storm in some of the state’s hardest-hit counties.

Biden spoke with DeSantis on Thursday before arriving at FEMA’s headquarter, according to a readout of the conversation provided by the White House, and the two leaders promised continued “close coordination” in response to the hurricane.

Biden and DeSantis’ cooperation amid the hurricane has been a subject of speculation in both Washington and Florida since Hurricane Ian formed last week, given the two men’s political rivalry.

But asked Thursday about his relationship with DeSantis, Biden said it was “totally irrelevant.”

“This is not about anything having do with our disagreements politically,” Biden said. “This is about saving people’s lives, homes and businesses. That’s what this is about.”

Biden said that he’s spoken with the governor four or five times and that the governor has complimented him and federal recovery efforts thus far.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell is scheduled to visit Florida on Friday to check on recovery efforts.

McClatchyDC White House Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was used to supplement this report.