FORT MYERS, Florida: A resurgent Hurricane Ian barreled toward South Carolina on Friday (Sep 30), a day after carving a path of destruction across the Florida peninsula, washing away houses, destroying a causeway and stranding thousands along the state's Gulf Coast.
There have been reports of at least 21 deaths in Florida, Kevin Guthrie, director of the state's Division of Emergency Management, said at a morning briefing. He stressed that some of those reports remain unconfirmed.
Ian, which had weakened to a tropical storm during its march across Florida, returned to Category 1 hurricane status on Thursday and was accelerating toward South Carolina on Friday morning with maximum sustained wind speeds of 140kmh, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
The storm was forecast to hit north of low-lying Charleston at about 2pm ET (1800 GMT), 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.
President Joe Biden said that he has directed every possible action be taken to save lives.
"We're just beginning to see the scale of that destruction. It's likely to rank among the worst ... in the nation's history," Biden told reporters.
Officials in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina urged residents to prepare for dangerous conditions.
By mid-morning on Friday, drivers were ordered off the roads in Charleston County, and the Charleston International Airport was closed because of high winds.
The county, which has about 400,000 residents, has two shelters open and a third on standby, said spokesperson Kelsey Barlow.
"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.
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.
A city-commissioned report released in November 2020 found that about 90 per cent of all residential properties were vulnerable to storm surge flooding.
As updated forecasts showed Charleston would likely avoid a direct hit from Ian's eye, Charleston Mayor John Teckenburg warned residents that the danger remained high.
"While we're encouraged by the change in the track, we want folks to be aware that hazardous conditions are still very possible for our areas," he said in a statement.
The National Weather Service warned of "life-threatening" storm surges along 201km of the South Carolina coast, from Isle of Palms near Charleston to the North Carolina border.
Even so, the expected storm surges are not as severe as the 3.7m surges that hit part of Florida's Gulf Coast earlier this week.
Two days after Ian first came ashore on Florida's Gulf Coast as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the US 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.
Some 10,000 people were unaccounted for, Guthrie said, but many of them were likely in shelters or without power. He said he expected the number to "organically" shrink in the coming days.
Just under 2 million homes and businesses remained without power on Friday, according to tracking service PowerOutage.us.
Fort Myers, a city close to where the eye of the storm first came ashore, absorbed a major blow, with numerous houses destroyed. 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 on Friday on the east side of the city, hoping to purchase gas cans, generators, bottled water and anything else needed to survive. The line was as long as a football field.
Many said they felt city and state governments were doing as much as possible to help people but that the lack of communication and uncertainty about the future 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.
Rita Chambers, a 70-year-old retiree who was born in Jamaica and has lived in Fort Myers since 1998, said Ian was unlike any storm she had ever seen.
"And I've been in hurricanes since I was a child!" said Chambers, who had moved to New York as a teenager.
She watched as the winds and flooding tore the porch right off her home in Cape Coral. Despite it all, she said she is not thinking of leaving Florida.
"I would rather shovel sand from my Florida home than shovel the snow in New York," she said. "If you live in paradise, you have to put up with a hurricane."