Hurricane Ian looms off Carolinas after 21 deaths reported in Florida
Hurricane Ian Damage (AFP)

By Brad Brooks and Brendan O'Brien

FORT MYERS, Fla. (Reuters) -A resurgent Hurricane Ian barreled toward South Carolina on Friday, a day after carving a path of destruction across the Florida peninsula, washing away houses, causing a causeway to collapse and stranding thousands along the state's Gulf Coast.

The hurricane led to at least 21 confirmed or unconfirmed deaths in Florida, Kevin Guthrie, director of the state's Division of Emergency Management, said at a morning briefing. It was the first time a state official offered an estimate of the human toll.

Ian, which had weakened to a tropical storm during its march across Florida, was upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane on Thursday as it churned toward South Carolina with maximum sustained wind speeds of 85 mph (140 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

The hurricane was forecast to hit north of low-lying Charleston at about 2 p.m. ET (1800 GMT) on Friday, bringing potentially life-threatening flooding, storm surges and winds. Hundreds of miles of coastline, stretching from Georgia to North Carolina, were under a hurricane warning.

Officials in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina urged residents to prepare for dangerous conditions.

By mid-morning on Friday in Charleston and Charleston County, South Carolina, everyone was ordered off the roads and the Charleston International Airport was closed because of high winds.

Kelsey Barlow, a spokeswoman for Charleston County, home to more than 400,000 residents, said that the county has two shelters open and a third on standby.

"But it's too late for people to come to the shelters. The storm is here. Everyone needs to shelter in place, stay off the roads," Barlow said.

Barlow said a storm surge of more than seven feet was expected, on top of the noon high tide that could bring another six feet of water, causing massive flooding.

With the eye of the storm still hours away, torrential rain had already arrived in Charleston. Video clips on social media showed several inches of water in some streets in the historic port city, which is especially prone to flooding.

Charleston is particularly at risk. A city-commissioned report released in November 2020 found that about 90% of all residential properties were vulnerable to storm surge flooding. Parts of northeast South Carolina, near Charleston, could also experience up to eight inches of rain.

Even so, the expected storm surges were not as severe as those issued by the NHC when the storm was approaching Florida. Edisto Beach, South Carolina, a resort destination about 30 miles south of Charleston, was expected to see a four- to seven-foot surge. That compares to 12-foot surges reported earlier in the week for parts of the Gulf Coast.

'BIG WALLOP'

Two days after Ian first came ashore on Florida's Gulf Coast as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. mainland, the extent of the damage there was becoming more apparent.

"Clearly it has packed a big wallop," Governor Ron DeSantis said at the briefing.

"The response was very, very quick," he said. "I do think that response made a difference."

Some 10,000 people were unaccounted for, Guthrie said, but many of them were likely in shelters or without power, making it impossible to check in with loved ones or local officials. He said he expected the number to "organically" shrink in the coming days.

Fort Myers, a city close to where the eye of the storm first came ashore, absorbed a major blow, with numerous houses destroyed by 150 mph winds and a powerful storm surge. Offshore, Sanibel Island, a popular destination for vacationers and retirees, was cut off when a causeway was rendered impassable.

Hundreds of beleaguered Fort Myers residents lined up at a Home Depot that opened early Friday on the east side of the city, hoping to purchase gas cans, generators, bottled water and anything else needed to survive. The line stretched for 100 yards.

Many said they felt the city and state governments were doing everything possible to help people but said the lack of communication and uncertainty about how they would go on living in the area weighed heavily on them.

Sarah Sodre-Crot and Marco Martins, a married couple and both 22, immigrated from Brazil with their families five years ago, seeking a better life than they had back home. They rode out the storm in their home in east Fort Myers.

“I know the government is doing everything they can, but we’re feeling lost, like we have no answers. Will energy return in a week? In a month? We just want to know so we can plan our lives a bit,” Sodre-Crot said.

About 1.99 million homes and businesses remained without power on Friday, according to tracking service poweroutage.com. Ian has affected more than 3.3 million customers since it hit on Wednesday.

Ian first made landfall on Wednesday afternoon as it slammed into the barrier island of Cayo Costa off Florida's Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (241 kph).

Read more:

Maps-Hurricane Ian batters the Gulf Coast

Drone video shows boats washed ashore in Hurricane Ian's wake

A Florida town rebuilt after one hurricane endures another

Hurricane hunter says Ian's eyewall flight was 'worst I've ever been on'

How hurricanes cause dangerous, destructive storm surges

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Rich McKay, Brendan O'Brien and Frank McGurty; Writing by Brendan O'Brien and Frank McGurty; Editing by Mark Porter)