Many trapped in Florida as Ian heads toward South Carolina
Residents are rescued from floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Orlando, Florida on Thursday. (Photo: AP)

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) — Rescue crews piloted boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to save thousands of people trapped after Hurricane Ian destroyed a cross-section of Florida and left millions in the dark.

The destruction began to come into focus a day after Ian made landfall in Florida as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the US The storm flooded homes on both of the state's coasts, cut off the only bridge to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out electricity to 2.67 million Florida homes and businesses, nearly a quarter of utility customers. At least one man was confirmed dead.

“We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told a news conference. “The amount of water that’s been rising, and will likely continue to rise today even as the storm is passing, is basically a 500-year flooding event.”

Though downgraded to a tropical storm by Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center said storm surge and flooding rains remained a threat as Ian crept across the Florida peninsula and emerged in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Canaveral. Forecasters predicted Ian would regain some strength while turning northward.

A hurricane warning was issued for the South Carolina coast, where the storm was expected to again make landfall, having already hit Cuba and Florida.

Sheriffs in southwest Florida said 911 centers were inundated by thousands of stranded callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. The US Coast Guard began rescue efforts hours before daybreak on barrier islands near where Ian struck, DeSantis said. More than 800 members of federal urban search and rescue teams were also in the area.

In the Orlando area, Orange County firefighters used boats to reach people in a flooded neighborhood. A photo the department posted on Twitter showed one firefighter carrying someone in his arms through knee-deep water. At an area nursing home, patients were carried on stretchers across floodwaters to a waiting bus.

Firefighters on boats and National Guard soldiers in a tall truck rescued Joseph Agboona and his neighbors after water rose to the windows in his Orlando home.

“We we’re happy to get out," said Agboona, who grabbed two bags of possessions, not knowing what will be left when he eventually returns. "It was very, very bad.”

In Fort Myers, Valerie Bartley’s family spent desperate hours Wednesday holding a dining room table against their patio door, fearing the storm raging outside “was tearing our house apart.”

“I was terrified,” Bartley said. “What we heard was the shingles and debris from everything in the neighborhood hitting our house.”

She said her 4-year-old daughter grabbed her hand and said: “I’m scared too, but it’s going to be OK.” The girl was right. The storm ripped away patio screens and snapped a palm tree in the yard, Bartley said, but left the roof intact and her family unharmed.

Authorities confirmed at least one Florida death — a 72-year-old man in Deltona who fell into a canal while using a hose to drain his pool in the heavy rain, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. Two other storm deaths were reported in Cuba.

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office was scrambling to respond to thousands of 911 calls, but many roads and bridges in Fort Myers and the surrounding area were impassable.

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