As floodwaters and storm damage to critical infrastructure hampered the task of trying to gauge the toll that Category 4 Hurricane Ian took on Florida, the southern Atlantic coast prepared for potentially life-threatening storm surge and flooding rains that could reach up into Virginia after landfall today in South Carolina.
“This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history,” President Biden said Thursday on a visit to Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington for a briefing on the storm. “The numbers … are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life.”
Florida’s Division of Emergency Management said Thursday that more than 800 urban search-and-rescue team members were at work and there were 42,000 lineman responding to more than 2 million reported power outages. Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the state. Five thousand Florida Guardsmen were activated to assist Hurricane Ian response operations, along with up to 2,000 Guardsmen from neighboring states.
More than 1,000 FEMA personnel were dispatched to Florida, with the Defense Department providing surge capacity on multiple fronts to support FEMA.
“America woke up this morning to images like Naples, Punta Gorda, and Cape Coral submerged underwater, homes across Fort Myers that have been torn from their foundations, and boats that have been found blocks away from where they were moored,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Thursday at FEMA headquarters in Washington.
Moving toward South Carolina on Thursday night as a Category 1 hurricane, Ian
“could strengthen a little more before landfall” today, the National Hurricane Center forecast on Thursday night. Tropical-storm-force winds extended up to 415 miles from the center of the storm.
In advance of that landfall, Biden approved an emergency declaration for South Carolina on Thursday night.
“We know that the next few days are going to be difficult. We have some very complex problems that we are going to have to solve,” Criswell said. “But like I said, we have the right teams in place who are ready to help those who need us most. And as I shared with the president just moments ago, search-and-rescue missions are already taking place across the impacted areas by land, air, and sea. We have teams ensuring critical health facilities like hospitals and adult care facilities have the support they need to care for their patients or evacuate them if still needed. We have power restoration teams making their way into devastated communities to help bring communities back online.”
“And while we are focused on lifesaving and life-sustaining response operations, we are already launching our recovery mission,” she added. “An interagency recovery group is already planning for the long-term recovery needs such as housing, debris removal, and critical infrastructure repair. As we know, this is going to be a complex recovery.”
Biden praised the Coast Guard in its early deployment of 16 rescue helicopters, 6 fixed-wing aircraft, and 18 rescue boats and crews to help Floridians.
“Our hearts go out to all those who’ve been impacted by Hurricane Ian,” Coast Guard Commandant Linda Fagan tweeted. “@USCG search & rescue efforts & storm assessments are well underway. I am incredibly proud of our workforce who live in the very communities they’re now supporting.”
Under the major disaster declaration, Biden noted, “the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cost to clear debris and for all the costs that the state has to engage in and expend to save lives.”
“The federal government will also cover the majority of the cost to rebuilding public buildings like schools and state fire stations,” he added. “And folks in Florida who have destroyed or damaged homes — if you don’t have enough insurance, it means the federal government will provide individual assistance of [up to] $37,900 for home repairs, another $37,900 for lost property — everything from an automobile to a lost wedding ring.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas activated the DHS Surge Capacity Force “so that we can bring to bear additional personnel from across the department to support disaster survivors in Florida.”
“When a catastrophic event hits, DHS approaches response and recovery work with the full expanse of our resources and our capabilities,” he said. “Our work in support of those affected by Ian will continue in the days, weeks, and months to come. This is not just a ‘here today and gone tomorrow.'”
The death toll so far from Ian has been fluctuating, with CNN reporting 19 known storm-related deaths. “We’re very concerned that the numbers will increase as the assessments and as we learn more,” Mayorkas told CNN.
On Thursday morning, Biden signed into law the Civilian Reservist Emergency Workforce (CREW) Act, which grants employment protections under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act to Federal Emergency Management Agency reservists who deploy to major disaster sites.
“That law will ensure that FEMA reservists have job protection just like military reservists,” Biden said. “So when you’re called up to help with a disaster, you can now focus on that mission without worrying you might lose your job — your day job — or receive some other penalty at work because of this national service. … And it’s going to make FEMA stronger. It’s going to make America stronger.”