Officials assess massive hurricane damage as Florida begins long recovery

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Days after Hurricane Ian pummeled Florida, state and local officials were rushing to provide relief to battered residents even as signs of frustration started to mount.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and first lady Casey DeSantis spent part of Sunday handing out supplies to residents seeking help struggling with basic needs in the aftermath of the deadly storm that is responsible for killing at least 58 people — with the official toll still likely to rise significantly in the days ahead.

It’s also clear that hard-hit areas like Lee and Charlotte counties will be recovering for months if not years, with some school districts saying that they would remain closed indefinitely. Insurers have already reported at least $1.44 billion in preliminary claims that have been filed.

“They will never look the same again, these are communities that have basically been wiped out,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on CNN’s State of the Union when discussing the damage to Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island in Lee County.

The fury of the storm prompted a mammoth rescue effort that had resulted in saving more than 1,600 survivors, with both the Florida National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard landing helicopters on barrier islands in order to search for those left stranded.

DeSantis told reporters during a late afternoon briefing on Sunday that the hurricane damaged areas were the site of the largest mobilization of search and rescue teams in the United States since the 9/11 attacks.

More than 794,000 home and businesses remained without power by mid-Sunday afternoon — most of them located in the hard-hit counties of southwest Florida, where a wall of water left some communities in complete devastation.

Florida Power & Light — the state’s largest utility has restored power to 1.6 million customers — but in a timeline released this weekend suggested it could take up to another week to restore power to 95 percent of those customers living in the area that took the brunt of the impact from Hurricane Ian.

DeSantis, who spoke in Arcadia, a small town located in an interior Southwest Florida county, acknowledged there were places that would require a complete rebuild of electric utility infrastructure.

“There’s still flooding in places they would need to go to reconnect some of the power lines,” DeSantis said Sunday.

Both the Miami Herald and Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported on Sunday that some residents in places such as Pine Island and Cape Coral were pleading for help on social media.

There has already been attention focused on whether Lee County officials called on residents to evacuate vulnerable areas in a timely manner. Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno defended their actions at a Sunday press conference. The storm made landfall Wednesday near Fort Myers in Lee County as a Category 4 hurricane.

“Everyone wants to focus on a plan that might have been done differently,” Marceno said. “Well I'm going to tell you, I stand 100% with my county commissioners, my county manager — we did what we had to do. At the exact same time, I wouldn't have changed anything. And I know being in those meetings from the very minute — this storm was very unpredictable... We weren't even in the projected path or cone.”

The vast majority of fatalities are in Lee County. Florida reported at least 30 of the 44 deaths were in Marceno’s county.

The state on Saturday began distributing pallets of water, ice and food to residents at several distribution sites. State emergency officials said they had handed out more than 829,000 ready to eat meals and 3.8 million bottles of water.

But a big problem remains the number of people who live in locations that are not easily accessible by car.

DeSantis said that the Florida Department of Transportation plans to begin construction of temporary bridge to Pine Island, the largest barrier island on Florida’s Gulf coast, which was home to an estimated 9,000 residents before the storm. DeSantis acknowledged that this would be a stop-gap remedy, saying that cars would have to travel no faster than 5 miles per hour in order to use the temporary bridge once it’s finished.

The devastation left behind by Ian has prompted both Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott to discuss the need for supplemental funding.

“We do have to provide disaster aid,” Scott (R-Fla.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And whether that’s for a hurricane, or whether that’s for flooding, or whether that’s for wildfires, we’ve got to do that.”

Rubio, asked whether he would support a bill for relief bill including funding for seemingly unrelated projects, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” he would “fight against it having pork.”

Congress is “capable” of passing a relief bill “without using it as a vehicle or a mechanism for people to load it up with stuff that’s unrelated to the storm,” Rubio said.

The senator voted against relief for Northeastern states for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but defended that vote Sunday as against provisions in the bill that were not proximate enough to disaster relief.

Scott, a former governor of Florida, avoided making judgment on the actions of local officials in Lee County, which did not send an evacuation order to its residents until Tuesday; several nearby jurisdictions issued evacuation orders Monday.

“It’s something we’ll have to look at,” Scott said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” DeSantis has said those officials acted appropriately.

Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson defended local officials’ actions Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“Warnings for hurricane season start in June, and so there’s a degree of personal responsibility here. I think the county acted appropriately,” Anderson said. Some people “will not heed the warnings regardless,” he added.

Asked if the storm was made worse because of the impact of climate change, Criswell acknowledged “we’re seeing an increase” in the number and intensity of storms, as well as the rain associated with storms.

But “right now, we are very focused on the impacts, regardless of what caused it,” she added.