After Hurricane Ian barrels through Florida, hazardous conditions remain, authorities warn

Hurricane Ian packed a powerful punch across Florida on Wednesday after it made landfall in the southwestern part of the state as a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds.

The storm — downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday morning — has left more than 2.6 million Floridians without power, some of them stranded, and many with homes demolished by flooding and boats ripped to pieces.

Speaking at a news conference in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude.”

The aftermath of the hurricane has left communities with downed trees and power lines, fractured homes and other scattered debris.

With many hazards left behind by Hurricane Ian, multiple emergency agencies are warning residents to stay off the roads and away from the dangers that might not be apparent.

A broken utility pole lies on a street following Hurricane Ian.
A broken utility pole lies on a street in Fort Myers, Fla., on Thursday following Hurricane Ian. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Hurricane dangers remain [even] after the storm,” the National Weather Service tweeted on Thursday. “Watch out for downed power lines and damaged buildings. Avoid floodwaters as they can hide a variety of dangers, and never drive through them, as it doesn’t take much to sweep your car away.”

Walking through floodwater might seem safe, but there could be hazards lying underneath the murky water, such as harmful bacteria or chemicals, sharp objects and live wires.

One study suggests that the most dangerous time when hurricanes and tropical storms hit is after they dissipate. The peer-reviewed study, published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that disasters are associated with up to 33.4% higher death rates during the months that follow.

According to the study, direct causes like drowning are seen following hurricanes. Indirect causes, ranging from infectious and parasitic diseases to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and neuropsychiatric conditions, also follow such storms.

Jake Moses and Heather Jones walk through debris along a street with destroyed businesses.
Jake Moses, 19, and Heather Jones, 18, explore a section of destroyed businesses in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Intentional self-harm, the study added, is another indirect cause of death for some who are faced with economic hardship following destruction of property. For anyone dealing with emotional distress following a storm, the Disaster Distress Helpline is available by texting or calling 800-985-5990.

Dialing 988 can also direct someone in distress to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

In Seminole County, an area north of Orlando, emergency manager Alan Harris told local NBC station WESH that people “don’t know” if downed power lines are live or not.

“So if you see a tree down with a downed power line, this is not the time to learn how to do a chainsaw. And this is not the time to test the power. Wait until the electrical company can get there with our public works department. They work in tandem, moving down the roadways to make sure everything is safe,” he said.

Harris recounted a tragic death that occurred after Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017.

“One of the deaths we had in Hurricane Irma was an actual floating ant pile. So it looked like a leaf coming down the waterway, again, floodwaters being the culprit. But these ants huddled together as they do in the wild, to try to sustain life, their life. And then it hit the individual, the individual was allergic, and unfortunately passed away,” he said. “So anything — when you’re looking at floodwaters, when you’re working around floodwaters — be careful. We are in Florida, so snakes, alligators, even ants could cause a danger around floodwaters.”

The police department in Tampa released footage showing a massive traffic light unexpectedly crash down into the road below. “We cannot stress this enough: Stay Off The Roads. Stay Indoors,” the department tweeted. “There are live wires down. This is NOT the time to venture out.”

According to officials, another major hazard to watch for is improper use of generators, which have in some instances caused more deaths than the actual storm.

National Weather Service Director Ken Graham warned during a briefing on Wednesday that generators can be just as dangerous as the hurricanes themselves — if not more.

“We’ve seen over the last couple of years in some of these big hurricanes, including Hurricane Laura that hit Louisiana, that there were more fatalities afterward associated with generators than there was from similar storm surge of 16 to 18 feet,” he said.

Hurricane Laura in 2020 caused 15 deaths in Louisiana, at least seven of them caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.

Rescue workers and Orlando residents make their way through floodwaters in a boat.
Rescue workers take some Orlando residents to safety on Thursday. (John Raoux/AP)

The National Weather Service also stressed avoiding wading into floodwater. “Floodwater is extremely dangerous and can contain harmful chemicals and objects that could harm you or make you sick,” the agency said.