Historic search-and-rescue operation underway as Ian's death toll reaches 87

As federal emergency management officials launched their largest ever search-and-rescue effort, the number of fatalities in Hurricane Ian’s wake climbed to 87 Sunday.

That number, tallied by NBC News, was expected to continue to climb as additional deaths were investigated for possible ties to last week’s storm.

The fatalities so far have included 83 in Florida, where Ian struck as a Category 4 hurricane Wednesday, and four in North Carolina, where the storm ended up after striking the coast of South Carolina Friday.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden announced they will travel to devastated areas this week as the United States reels from the death, dangerous floods and destruction left in Hurricane Ian’s wake.

The White House announced late Saturday that the Bidens will visit Puerto Rico on Monday and Florida on Wednesday.

Search and rescue efforts were underway, and Federal Emergency Management Administration chief Deanne Criswell told “Fox News Sunday” the U.S. response was likely to be unprecedented.

“We pre-positioned the largest amount of search-and-rescue assets that I think we’ve ever put in place before,” the FEMA administrator said.

FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue teams, the Coast Guard, the Interior Department and Defense Department will work with Florida officials to search for people who remain unaccounted for after Hurricane Ian, which brought catastrophic floods, according to Criswell.

At least 1,100 rescues had been made in Florida since the storm struck, Gov. Ron DeSantis told a news conference Saturday.

“There’s been a great outpouring of support and I’ve seen a lot of resilience in this community of people that want to pick themselves up and they want to get their communities back on their feet,” DeSantis told reporters. “We’ll be here and we’ll be helping every step of the way.”

After Ian was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory late Saturday that the storm was dissipating across southern Virginia. Still, it left flooding and power outages across the Carolinas as the extent of the damage came into view. At least four people died in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Saturday.

With rescue efforts ongoing and the floodwaters receding in places littered with wrecked homes, local officials warned that the extent of the death and destruction left by Ian may only just be coming into view.

Puerto Rico is still grappling with the fallout from Hurricane Fiona, which has resulted in 25 fatalities since it hit the U.S. territory last month, according to the island’s health department.

No further details of the Bidens’ trip were announced, but the president mentioned his concern for the areas pummeled by the storms at a Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner on Saturday night.

“Our hearts … are heavy, the devastating hurricanes, storms in Puerto Rico, Florida and South Carolina. And we owe Puerto Rico a hell of a lot more than they’ve already gotten,” Biden said.

On Sunday, portions of multiple Florida counties, including parts of Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, St. Johns, and Sarasota, remained under mandatory evacuation orders.

The number of utility customers without power in Florida and in other South Atlantic states remained well under 1 million Sunday: An estimated 746,049 households and businesses were without electricity in Florida early Sunday evening, according to PowerOutage.us.

That figure for South Carolina was 314; for North Carolina it was 7,073; and for Virginia, it was 4,597.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said overnight that some generators purchased for medical needs by residents will be covered by tax dollars.

Residents who lost power after the storm struck in areas covered by Biden’s major disaster declaration will be eligible for reimbursement, which for now include only the Florida counties of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota. Additional areas could be designated after damage assessment, said the White House.

Across the Florida straits, new protests flared in Cuba on Saturday over the ongoing blackouts in Havana as crews scrambled to restore electricity. Ian had knocked out power to the whole country of 11 million people when it plowed through western Cuba earlier this week.

Power Outages also continued in Puerto Rico, where more than 140,000 residents were stranded without any electricity, and almost 40,000 lost electricity in the Carolinas, according to PowerOutage.us.

Hurricane Fiona struck the island on Sep. 16, thrashing power grids and flooding towns, leaving residents with collapsed bridges. Within days almost all of Puerto Rico was left without power. It was the second storm since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico five years ago, from which the island still hadn’t fully recovered.

“To the people of Puerto Rico, we’re not gone away; I am committed to you and the recovery of the island,” Biden said after a FEMA briefing on Thursday. “We’ll stand by you for however long it takes to get it done,” he said.

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