Hurricane Ian death toll climbs to at least 68; over 4,000 people rescued in Florida

Editor's note: Don't have power? Click here for a lite version of this page with a quicker load time.

The death toll from Hurricane Ian rose to at least 68 and about 700,000 homes and businesses across Florida remained without power on Sunday, four days after the Category 4 beast slammed ashore along the state's Gulf Coast.

Confirmed fatalities included 61 in Florida, four in North Carolina and three in Cuba, where Ian made its first landfall Tuesday. The count remained fluid Sunday.

Water levels kept rising in some flooded areas of Florida, inundating homes and streets that were passable a day or two earlier. Notices advising that water for human consumption be boiled were issued to at least parts of 23 counties.

Over 4,000 people have been rescued by local, state and federal authorities, FEMA and U.S. Coast Guard officials said.

"There's more urban search and rescue teams in Florida now than in any one place in American history since Sept. 11,'' Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

A large percentage of those rescued rode out the storm on barrier islands – and Sanibel and Pine islands were rendered inaccessible by land. Parts of the causeway to Sanibel collapsed, and the bridge to Pine, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, was destroyed by the storm. Some residents were evacuated by helicopter.

“The water just kept pounding the house and we watched boats, houses – we watched everything just go flying by,” resident Joe Conforti said. “When the water’s at your door, and it’s splashing on the door and you’re seeing how fast it’s moving, there’s no way you’re going to survive that.”

Florida Power & Light, the state's largest power company, said it had restored electricity to nearly 1.7 million customers, including all hospitals in its service area by Sunday night. More than 20,000 workers were involved in the restoration effort.

“Even given the unprecedented devastation caused by the storm, I can now confidently say that our restoration will be completed in a matter of days, not weeks," Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silag said.

The weakened storm was meandering up the East Coast on Sunday, continuing to bring rain as far north as Washington, D.C.

►BEFORE AND AFTER: A look at Ian's damage.

► 'IT'S LIKE A WAR ZONE': Residents start to rebuild.

SHATTERED HOPES: Ian, Fiona wake up a quiet hurricane season. What's next?

Florida's Pine Island evacuated, but some resist leaving

A massive effort to evacuate residents remaining on Pine Island and the nearby community of Matlacha began in earnest Sunday. Hurricane Ian created multiple breaks in the road that connected Pine Island to the mainland, making it more difficult to bring in critical supplies like food, water and gasoline.

Still, those who left did so grudgingly, wondering why the resources spent on prompting them to get out couldn’t instead be used to allow them to remain in the island just west of Cape Coral in Lee County, which took a direct hit from the hurricane. There were also plenty intent on staying, defiant of warnings that life there is unsustainable.

“There’s only one way they’re getting me off this island and that’s by dragging my dead carcass out of here,” said Damian Minko Jr., 43.

Some of Pine Island's 8,500 residents feel like their homes, businesses and way of life will be threatened if they leave.

“They want to get rid of all of us and turn this into a rich people’s paradise. Bulldoze it all and make it all like a golf-coursey perfect world,” said John Bauer, 70, who has lived on Pine Island 22 years. “It’s a fishing village. We’d like to keep it the way it was. There ain’t much of old Florida left and this was a tiny speck of it.”

One piece of good news emerged late Sunday afternoon when Gov. Ron DeSantis directed transportation officials to expedite emergency road repairs to allow motorists access to Pine Island by Saturday.

— Fort Myers News-Press

Rescuers help evacuate Suzanne Tomlinson, a Pine Island resident who rode out Hurricane Ian, on Sunday. The only bridge to the island is heavily damaged so it can only be reached by boat or air.
Rescuers help evacuate Suzanne Tomlinson, a Pine Island resident who rode out Hurricane Ian, on Sunday. The only bridge to the island is heavily damaged so it can only be reached by boat or air.

'We lost everything': Church a source of solace for distressed residents

One congregant left his one-story home trying to escape the floodwaters, only to find the storm surge rising so fast he had to climb on the bed of his pickup truck. From there he rescued a woman getting swept by the current.

Another churchgoer went out to take a photo of the torrential waters and saw the surge nearly kill a man trying to drive away in his Jeep.

Shellshocked and distressed, they came to find solace Sunday at Fort Myers' Southwest Baptist church, which itself showed the harsh effects of Hurricane Ian, with a toppled steeple, soaked floors and holes in the roof.

They found no shortage of people willing to commiserate and share similar stories of devastation.

“It’s terrible. We lost everything,” said Emery Lewis, 78, whose house was destroyed. “We’re just fortunate this pastor has let us stay here.”

— Chris Kenning, USA TODAY

River flooding adds to Florida's woes: 'All that water has no place to go'

Battling rising floodwaters on boat and horseback, rescuers plucked stranded residents from their homes and herded cattle to higher ground as the Myakka River in Florida  overflowed its banks near Venice on Saturday. Locals and rescuers, long familiar with how hurricanes push water into their neighborhoods, said Ian drove unusually high flooding, which came three days after the storm’s passage.

The heavy storm surge was exacerbated by hours of pounding rainfall in Central Florida – leading to deep inland flooding. Several longtime residents blamed new developments for destroying historic floodplains able to soak up the water.

“We’re used to flooding, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jennifer Stringer, 50, a high school teacher who has lived alongside the river since 2011. “All that water has no place to go.”

— Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

RIVERS OVERWHELMED BY IAN'S PUSH: After Hurricane Ian came the floods. These people rallied to rescue residents, horses, cows

Black neighborhood residents say they aren’t counting on much help

Residents of Dunbar, a historically Black area of storm-battered Fort Myers, said the aftermath of Hurricane Ian will mean the city’s wealthier, majority-white neighborhoods will get power back sooner since they typically having better power grids. Those in Dunbar, which now also features a growing Latino population, have grown accustomed to relying on themselves and looking out for each other, some residents say.

“Anything where it’s majority people of color, it’s going to be last,” said Shannon Tolbert, a dental assistant, adding, "We can survive off anything.”

Vice President Kamala Harris has said communities of color often take the brunt of natural disasters, "so we have to address this in a way that is about giving resources based on equity.''

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation'' that she has been working on removing obstacles for people in those communities to get help from the agency, but also pointed out those programs are available to all affected by events like Hurricane Ian.

"We're going to support all communities,'' Criswell said. "I committed that to the governor, I commit to you right here that all Floridians are going to be able to get the help that is available to them through our programs.''

— Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY

BLACK NEIGHBORHOODS AFTER A STORM: After Hurricane Ian hits Fort Myers, Black neighborhood residents say they aren’t counting on much help

'I just knew we may not make it': Scary tales from those who rode out storm

No matter how dire the warnings of officials urging people to leave or seek safe shelter as a hurricane approaches, some residents always choose to ride out the storm.

After Ian, some in southwest Florida are having second thoughts.

Ian made landfall in that part of the state as a Category 4 hurricane packing sustained winds of up to 150 mph, disconnecting Sanibel and Pine islands from the mainland, wiping away large parts of Fort Myers Beach and bringing several feet of water into inland neighborhoods in Cape Coral.

Even some locals with plenty of hurricane experience told tales of woes they'd never gone through before. 

In the Cape Coral community of Pelican, newcomers Robert Reecer and his wife rode out Ian at home and learned that might not have been wise as their veranda flooded, seeping water into the house. He stuffed the bottom of doors with towels to keep water that reached his ankles from spreading too fast, then took blankets, drinking water and an axe to the attic.

"Being in the attic hearing wind blowing 120 miles per hour and trying to get in contact with family I thought I may never see again was the worst part," Reecer said. "I just knew we may not make it."

– Stefania Lugli, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

North Carolina 'avoided the worst of it,' ready to help Florida

In North Carolina, the storm downed trees and power lines. Three of the four deaths in the state were from storm-related vehicle tragedies, one was carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage. Gov. Roy Cooper said Sunday that dozens of roads remained closed. Still, he said "we have avoided the worst of it," and help is already being offered to Florida.

"We sympathize with the people in Florida," Cooper said. "And since the storm has passed North Carolina, we are already in discussions with Florida officials to try to make sure that we help them. This is a time when we all have to pull together to make sure that people are safe."

Boca Grande, playground for presidents, took hit from Ian

Historic Boca Grande, an exclusive vacation destination for presidents, movie stars and old money elite, suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Ian and communications were down. But the island's infrastructure, along with most buildings and landmarks, largely is intact and should be able to recover, according to those surveying the storm's aftermath.

Historic buildings such as the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse built in 1890 and the Gasparilla Inn & Club – which was built in 1911 and has hosted President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Katherine Hepburn and many other famous people – survived Hurricane Ian.

"Basically we’re not in contact with the rest of the world," Boca Grande Fire Lieutenant Lee Cooper said.

— Zac Anderson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune 

IAN DEATH TOLL RISES: More than 1,000 rescued in Florida: Updates

Bidens to visit Florida this week to see Ian's destruction

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Florida this week, according to the White House, to see firsthand the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to strike the nation, and the recovery being carried out by tens of thousands of local, state and federal workers and volunteers.

The Bidens will travel to Puerto Rico on Monday and then head to Florida on Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted Saturday night. Hurricane Fiona slammed Puerto Rico as a Category 1 storm on Sept. 18.

Sergio Bustos, USA TODAY Network Florida

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ian: Death toll up to 68; 4,000 people rescued in Florida