FORT MYERS, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke in Fort Myers to survey ongoing recovery efforts after Hurricane Ian. He was joined by Director Deanne Criswell of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as state officials.
DeSantis said he had toured some of the damage in Fort Myers and in Sanibel on the Gulf of Mexico side, saying what he had seen was extensive.
“As you got back down to see what happened in Fort Myers beach, really really strong damage, really significant, I just want to say the Fort Myers folks, Lee County Sheriff, state of Florida coast guard that have been involved in these rescue attempts,” DeSantis said. “There’s been over 600 just in Lee County. There’s obviously been a lot in Charlotte and Collier as well. So, you’re looing at over 700 maybe over 800 rescues since the storm ended. Those efforts ended immediately. As soon as the winds went back, you had people in here working hard to help folks, bring them to safety.”
The governor said crews were in Sanibel working on recovery efforts, and that bridge issues in Sanibel were being addressed. He said coast guard choppers offered to bring people back to the mainland, but some had refused. DeSantis said “that’s their right.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is working on repairs to infrastructure, according to DeSantis, but there was some underlying damage to infrastructure across the state that was still being worked on. Florida National Guard was assisting, according to the governor.
“Reports I’ve received from some of the utilities is that while there was structural damage to the underlying electrical infrastructure,” DeSantis said, there were a lot of places that will need rebuilding, “they were working to restore power.” He said core services were significant and that efforts were still in progress to restore power to the Floridians currently without it. “What I’ve seen from the folks here locally is all hands on deck, I’ve seen them working around the clock and really sparing no effort to help their community. We’re really proud of that and to be a part of that, and we’ll continue to be a part of that.”
DeSantis said the storm’s impacts were likely to be “a big deal for a long time” due to the damage.
Florida Dept. of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said they were still working to push resources into impacted areas across Florida.
“Most likely before this is all over, all eight Florida search and rescue teams will be involved in this fight,” Guthrie said. He said additional barges were being prepared to come to the area, bringing heavy equipment for search and rescue teams. They’ll bring things like front end loaders and bulldozers, allowing equipment and supplies to be ferried across.
“We have solved the water problem temporarily at the hospitals,” Guthrie said. “We are ferrying 20,000 gallons of water about five times a day for each hospital. That’s a significant mission. We are bringing that water in from, I believe Lakeland, to bring that bulk water down and get those hospitals, keep those hospitals online, at least temporarily.”
FEMA Director Deanne Criswell said the damage they’d seen so far was “devastating” and said that applications for assistance were already open. She said the earlier assistance was requested, the faster they could begin working.
Additionally, FEMA staff would be in the area making contact with residents to help provide information and setting up disaster recovery centers in partnership with state officials.
“To assist people as we go through this process, we know that there’s going to be a lot of needs as we go into this recovery. Insurance is going to be one of the primary mechanisms, FEMA’s funding can support some things like some damages to your homes as well as property that has been lost, personal property that’s been lost,” Criswell said. “We do have some limits in what we can support, but we’ll bring in all of our federal partners and non-profit agencies to try to identify what those unmet needs are and really help all of the members of these communities get what they need to support these recovery efforts.”
DeSantis spoke again, saying that Florida Chief Financial Officer will be setting up “insurance villages” to help with recovery and assistance efforts. He said processing claims quickly will help take some of the apprehension away for residents.
“We are both going to be very strong on getting these claims processed quickly, but also on the lookout, very strong, against scam artists who may be out there,” DeSantis said. In concert with efforts by Attorney General Ashley Moody, the state will be watching for those “trying to take advantage” of the disaster.
Search and rescue efforts in Florida are still underway. As of the governor’s most recent update, state officials reported 21 fatalities, so far, with one confirmed in Polk County and the rest not confirmed yet, in terms of cause.
The additional 20 unconfirmed deaths mentioned by the state were reportedly split, with 12 in Charlotte County and eight in Collier County. Special equipment is being brought in to assist in recovery of decedents, according to Guthrie.
The governor’s office said in a statement that “there are currently 42,000 linemen responding to the more than 1.9 million reported power outages. They have already restored power to more than 700,000 accounts in Southwest Florida.”
Hurricane Ian is expected to make landfall in South Carolina, having regained some strength, returning to hurricane level-winds.
During a question and answer session in Fort Myers, Guthrie said the National Guard was going to be working on clearing debris and reopening roads, and that the areas were secure. Searches in the area were still in progress, and it was going to take time, according to the FDEM director.
Addressing security concerns, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said he had spoken “at length” with Moody to ensure no one is taking advantage of residents in the county and promised “swift incarceration, immediately, with no tolerance.”
He said security meant everything, from marine units and federal involvement, with all teams working “cohesively. Zero tolerance means zero tolerance.” Marceno said law enforcement was using all terrain vehicles, jet skis, and boats. He thanked DeSantis for “giving us whatever we need” to address the needs and concerns of the community during storm recovery.
DeSantis spoke again, saying that however the county needs help, as far as transportation for residents, the state would provide the assistance.
Referencing looting and other concerns, DeSantis said Florida was “a law and order state,” and that they were committed to preventing crimes from being committed that take advantage of Floridians in need. “We’ve gotta have all hands on deck to make sure rule of law is followed,” DeSantis said, adding that the community was “full of grit.”