‘Complicated and complex recovery’ lies ahead for Southwest Florida, FEMA administrator says

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Gov. Ron DeSantis gave a press conference Friday morning in Tallahassee on Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

DeSantis described the “Herculean effort” being undertaken in Southwest Florida, which suffered the worst of Hurricane Ian.

Rescue crews are responding to calls for help in the area as quickly as possible. Crews have gone to more than 3,000 homes in the hardest hit counties, and there are more than 1,000 personnel going up and down the coastline. More rescue crews are headed inland, including to DeSoto and Hardee counties. 

There are currently 21 known deaths, according to the state’s count. Only one of these deaths, in Polk County, has been confirmed. The other twenty are unconfirmed, with 12 in Charlotte County and eight in Collier County. More fatalities have been identified during a hasty search in a submerged Lee County home, but personnel won’t be able to learn the specifics until water recedes or more sophisticated technology is brought in. Only disaster-related deaths are being considered.

The number of missing people is the jurisdiction of local law enforcement agencies. Concerned individuals should contact local sheriff’s agencies for more information.

Emergency services are surveying the damage that will impact entire communities, particularly power and water infrastructure.

About 1.9 million Floridians are without power as of Friday morning. Hardee County is the hardest hit, being 99% without power. DeSoto County is 80% without power. Sarasota, Collier and Manatee counties are about 50% without power. Pinellas and Hillsborough are about 15 to 18% without power. Over 42,000 line workers are responding across the region. 

DeSantis said that Lee and Charlotte counties are 85% without power. While more power will be restored “in the relatively near future,” some infrastructure will have to be entirely rebuilt. Utility companies, which are already on the scene, are prepared to undertake these efforts.

Lee County doesn’t currently have running water due to a water main break and has asked FEMA for aid. FEMA has already arrived at the scene with the Army Corps of Engineers to assist. More personnel are on standby to aid the Corps. DeSantis called restoring water to Lee County a top priority and thanked FEMA and the Corps for their quick response.

Two major food and water distribution centers have been opened at the Charlotte Sports Park and the Lee County Sports Complex. Over 1.5 million gallons of fuel have been moved into Southwest Florida. Some larger Lee County gas stations are operating, while others await restoration of power.

The Florida Department of Transportation has over 1,300 personnel and have cleared over 1,100 miles of roadway. The state has inspected and reopened 800 bridges across the state. Traffic is flowing better than expected. Sanibel Causeway and other bridges need to be completely rebuilt. Relief has already been flown into Sanibel Island, and more will be sent by barges.

Six healthcare facilities have been evacuated. Just shy of 120 healthcare facilities have had their power restored.

DeSantis expects all Florida ports to be operational tomorrow.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell acknowledged that this would be a “complicated and complex recovery.”

FEMA has registered 34,000 people for individual assistance.

Thirteen counties have been designated for individual assistance with more likely to follow. People can sign up for individual assistance with the FEMA app and disasterassistance.gov. Teams are going into shelters to help with registration assistance. 

State government, FEMA and local communities will be setting up disaster recovery centers soon. 

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis will be setting up “insurance villages” to handle flood and wind claims. DeSantis aims to have the claims paid quickly as possible.

Over $12 million has been donated to the Florida Disaster Fund. DeSantis says private organizations can cover more unique needs that FEMA cannot cover under federal statute. DeSantis thanked his wife, Casey DeSantis, in making this possible.

You can volunteer to help in relief efforts here.

Kevin Guthrie, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, outlined his priorities as “search, secure and stabilize.” 

Personnel are conducting a series of searches: hasty searches, primary searches and secondary searches. Crews are currently in the more detailed primary search phase. 

Over 700 rescues have been conducted and over 3,000 contacts have been made in the field.

The state has set up a website where people can file a request to help locate family who cannot be reached.

The state has sent out a survey to individuals who sheltered in place to confirm their status. About 10,000 of the 20,000 individuals the survey was sent to responded that they were safe. This does not necessarily mean that the remaining 10,000 who haven’t responded are not safe. The number of people who haven’t been heard from will shrink day by day as data comes in from search and rescue.

Guthrie says the state is ahead of where they were at this point in Hurricane Michael.

Guthrie also emphasized the importance of personal individual responses. 

Individuals must separate debris into piles if moving them by the roadside: vegetation, structural (food, building, plumbing), household hazardous waste (batteries, chemicals, pesticides), electronics and white goods/appliances. Use gloves, goggles and boots. Be aware of power lines mixed in with debris.

Further details on how to sort debris will be given at a press conference at 5 p.m. 

Generator safety is important. While there have been no carbon monoxide deaths, there have been carbon monoxide “issues.”

Be careful with chainsaws, ladders and wires when cleaning up debris. Let professionals handle it, Guthrie advised.

More than 14,000 gallons of diesel have been mobilized to a Fort Myers water plant to provide water to nearby hospitals.

Guthrie talked about the family personal preparedness plans recommended prior to the hurricane, which are meant to help carry households through a week with food and water.

Next comes the local community distribution plan with help from the National Guard aimed to last for three to five days. Finally there will be mass feeding kitchens set up with hot meals three times a day to the most impacted communities without food and water. 

Lee County, the most impacted county, will be opening eight community pods. Some 14,000 people are in shelters across three counties, including Lee.

Guthrie spoke about mental health in the wake of the devastation.

State Mental Health Coordinating Officer Sarah Newhouse, who reports directly to Casey DeSantis, will be overseeing the mental health response for both civilians and first responders. Critical stress management teams will be sent across the state and will be working with FEMA mental health services.

DeSantis said the following about the heroism of first responders, many of whom have come from out of state.

“It’s putting yourself out there in harm’s way, but it does also take a toll.”

About Silas Morgan

Silas is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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