Federal government plans enormous amount of aid as local officials in worst-hit communities defend evacuation orders.
The death toll from Hurricane Ian in the southeastern United States has climbed past 80 as some officials face criticism over their response to the storm.
At least 85 storm-related deaths have been confirmed since Ian made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 249 kilometres per hour (155 miles per hour).
Florida accounted for all but four of the fatalities.
The sheriff’s office in coastal Lee County, which includes devastated Fort Myers, said it had counted 42 dead, with 39 deaths reported by officials in neighbouring counties.
Officials in Lee County have faced questions over whether they mandated evacuations in time.
Cecil Pendergrass, chairman of the county’s board of commissioners, said on Sunday that evacuation orders were given as soon as the hurricane’s direction became clear. Even then, some people chose to ride out the storm, Pendergrass said.
“I respect their choices,” he said at a press conference. “But I’m sure a lot of them regret it now.”
Deanne Criswell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said the federal government planned to unleash a huge amount of aid, focusing its attention on Florida first. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden are due to travel to the state on Wednesday.
Criswell told Fox News Sunday that the federal government, including the Coast Guard and Department of Defense, had moved into position “the largest amount of search and rescue assets that I think we’ve ever put in place before”.
Still, she warned that dangers remain.
“We see so many more injuries and sometimes more fatalities after the storm,” Criswell said. “Standing water brings with it all kinds of hazards — it has debris, it could have power lines.”
Authorities in North Carolina said at least four people had been killed there. No deaths were immediately reported in South Carolina, where Ian made another US landfall on Friday.
Chugging over land since then, Ian has diminished into an ever-weakening post-tropical cyclone, but water levels have continued to rise in some flooded areas, inundating homes and streets that were passable just a day or two earlier.
The National Hurricane Center forecast more heavy rainfall was possible across parts of West Virginia and western Maryland into Sunday morning, and “major to record flooding” in central Florida.
As the full scale of the devastation became clearer, officials said some of the heaviest damage was inflicted by wind-driven ocean surf that smashed into seaside communities and washed buildings away.
Satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed beach cottages and a motel that lined the shores of Florida’s Sanibel Island had been destroyed in storm surges. Although most homes appeared to still be standing, roof damage to all was evident.
Surveys from the ground showed that the barrier island, a popular tourist getaway that was home to some 6,000, was devastated.
“It’s all just completely gone,” Sanibel’s city manager, Dana Souza, said. “Our electric system is pretty much destroyed, our sewer system has been damaged badly and our public water supply is under assessment.”
The National Guard and the Coast Guard were flying in helicopters to the islands to rescue people after Sanibel’s only bridge to the mainland collapsed.
More than 700,000 businesses and homes remained without power on Sunday afternoon in Florida alone, where more than 2 million customers lost electricity the first night of the storm.
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