By Rod Nickel
FORT MYERS, Fla. (Reuters) -Search and rescue teams in Florida on Monday were doubling back to check on tens of thousands of homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast after completing an initial search of the area that was ravaged by Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms ever to strike the United States.
First responders have made a quick visit to about 45,000 homes and businesses after the Category 4 storm inundated homes and buildings with water or completely washed them away, Kevin Guthrie, director of Florida’s emergency management, said during a morning briefing.
“We’ve been to about every address,” he said, noting that crews are now conducting a more thorough search. “We believe that we have searched everything very quickly. Now we are going back for a second look.”
Since Ian crashed ashore last Wednesday with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (240 kph), at least 85 U.S. storm-related deaths have been reported.
Details have begun to emerge about some of the lives lost in the storm. Many of the victims were over 60 years of age and had drowned, according to Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission.
In hard-hit Lee County, one body was found on a neighbor’s deck and another in a submerged car. A 68-year-old woman drowned in Volusia County after being swept by a wave into the ocean.
“I am not saying we are not going to find anybody else. We may find other people,” Guthrie said of the second search.
NO CRYSTAL BALL
Lee County, home to the city of Fort Myers, experienced some of the worst destruction. Emergency officials have come under criticism from residents for a perceived delay in issuing an evacuation order, as the storm jogged southward from its earlier expected target of Tampa, which remained relatively unscathed.
“Emergency management directors do not have a crystal ball. I believe Lee County made the best decision they could, at the time,” Guthrie said, noting that evacuation decisions are made at the local level.
Some 43,000 linemen and support staff were working to restore power to more than 560,000 homes and businesses that remained without electricity on Monday. About 3.3 million homes and businesses initially lost power during the storm, he said.
Guthrie said that officials did not immediately have a number for how many residents remained in shelters, adding that many people either have returned home or moved in with family or friends.
Some displaced residents will be housed in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers or given vouchers to stay at hotels and motels, officials said on Monday.
As of Monday, 46 of the 59 school districts that had closed ahead of the storm had reopened, with most of the rest expected to reopen by the end of the week.
The head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Colonel Gene Spaulding, warned residents to stay off roads in order to make it easier for emergency responders and power crews to gain access. Some roads remain under water and others that might seem safe could have all the earth washed out underneath the asphalt, he said.
“Don’t assume it is safe,” he said.
GRAPHIC-Hurricane Ian batters the Gulf Coast
FACTBOX-Hurricane Ian damage: death toll and latest snapshot of Florida impact
FACTBOX-Over 570,000 still without power in Florida after Hurricane Ian
Scenes from Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian