Over 80 people are now reported to have died in Hurricane Ian in the southeastern United States.
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).
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.
Hundreds of people have been rescued as emergency workers sifted through homes and buildings inundated with water or completely washed away.
The death toll was expected to keep rising as flood waters receded and search teams pushed further into areas initially cut off from the outside world.
Officials in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Cape Coral and is on the Gulf Coast, 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.
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”.
“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.”
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will see the devastation in Florida first-hand on Wednesday, the White House said in a statement on Saturday.
The Bidens will visit Puerto Rico on Monday, where hundreds of thousands of people were still without power two weeks after Hurricane Fiona hit the island.