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As post-tropical cyclone Ian moves inland across North Carolina early Saturday, communities in Florida and South Carolina are recovering after the deadly storm brought torrential rain, powerful winds and cataclysmic flooding over the course of three terrifying days.
Ian slammed into southwest Florida as a severe Category 4 hurricane Wednesday, packing sustained winds of 150 mph. Officials believe the death toll of at least 45 people is likely to climb in the coming days as search-and-rescue crews access additional areas blocked off by debris and floodwaters.
After striking South Carolina on Friday, the storm is roughly 50 miles south-southeast of Greensboro, North Carolina, and has weakened to maximum sustained winds measured at 40 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center as of 2 a.m. ET Saturday.
“Considerable flash, urban and small stream flooding is possible across portions of North Carolina and southern Virginia through this morning, with minor river flooding possible over Coastal Carolinas,” the hurricane center warned. Wind gusts of up to tropical storm force are also possible and 3-6 inches of rainfall are forecast for the region.
Possible isolated tornadoes threaten parts of southeast Virginia and the Delmarva peninsula through Saturday morning, the hurricane center said. Ian is forecast to move north through Virginia Saturday and should dissipate by early Sunday.
This week, Ian left a trail of destruction felt most intensely in Florida’s southwestern coastal communities, including Fort Myers and Naples. Tampa, Orlando and cities along Florida’s northeastern coast were also impacted by downpours and high winds. Across the state, more than 1.3 million homes and businesses were still in the dark early Saturday.
“I made it about two-thirds down the island and I’d say 90% of the island is pretty much gone,” Fort Myers Beach Town Councilman Dan Allers said. “Unless you have a high-rise condo or a newer concrete home that is built to the same standards today, your house is pretty much gone.”
By Friday afternoon, Ian had weakened to a tropical storm before strengthening over Atlantic waters and making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane near Georgetown, South Carolina, bringing extreme storm surge, collapsing structures and ripping roofs off buildings.
More than 70,000 customers in South Carolina did not have power early Saturday, according to tracker PowerOutage.us. Another 340,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina and more than 100,000 in Virginia were also in the dark Saturday morning.
Authorities in South Carolina began cataloging damage on Pawleys Island, a coastal town roughly 70 miles north of Charleston. The biggest concern there, according to the mayor, is how to remove debris so the island can be safe again.
“It was a Category 1 hurricane, but we experienced tremendous storm surge today, probably beyond what most people anticipated,” Mayor Brian Henry told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Friday.
“Most of us did not believe we would see the storm surge at 7-plus feet,” Henry said. “It’s beginning to recede, but we have a huge amount of water on the roadways and across the island.”
Pawleys Island residents are not allowed to return home until safety assessments are fully conducted Saturday, police said.
The storm has flooded homes and submerged vehicles along the shoreline. Two piers – one in Pawleys Island and another in North Myrtle Beach – partially collapsed as high winds pushed water even higher.
In Horry County, where North Myrtle Beach in located, crews began removing debris left by the storm. Officials are urging residents to remain home and to not drive.
“It’s a pretty scary sight,” Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said of the hurricane. “I’m seeing way too many cars passing by. And I think people just don’t realize how dangerous it is to be out in these types of conditions. We’ve seen so many people’s cars get stuck, and emergency personnel has to go out and rescue people.”
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said on social media Friday, “A lot of prayers have been answered,” adding that the storm is “not as bad as it could have been, but don’t let your guard down yet. We are not out of the woods, there is water on the roads, still heavy winds, and it is still dangerous in many parts of the state.”
A swath of destruction was cut across the Florida peninsula Wednesday and Thursday, with communities along the southwestern coast facing the brunt of Ian’s storm surge at landfall. Sanibel and Captiva islands have been cut off from the mainland after parts of a causeway were obliterated by the storm.
Those living in Charlotte County are “facing a tragedy” without homes, electricity or water supplies, said Claudette Smith, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.
“We need everything, to put it plain and simple. We need everything. We need all hands on deck,” Smith told CNN Friday. “The people who have come to our assistance have been tremendously helpful, but we do need everything.”
From Florida’s coastal shores to inland cities such as Orlando, dangerous flooding has forced locals into dire circumstances. In one Orlando neighborhood where deep water has covered roads, some residents traveled by boat to assist others.
Rivers rising due to the substantial rainfall are still impacting areas headed into the weekend. A 12-mile portion of Interstate 75 in Sarasota County is closed in both directions due to the rising Myakka River, according to the Florida Department of Transportation Friday evening.
The US Coast Guard has rescued more than 275 people in Florida, according to Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson, and hundreds of additional rescues were being performed by teams from FEMA and local and state agencies. But post-storm conditions remain a huge challenge, he told CNN on Friday.
“We’re flying and we’re operating in areas that are unrecognizable. There’s no street signs. They don’t look like they used to look like. Buildings that were once benchmarks in the community are no longer there,” he said.
At least 45 deaths suspected to be related to Ian have been reported in Florida, including 16 in Lee County, 12 in Charlotte County, eight in Collier County, four in Volusia County, one in Polk County, one in Lake County, one in Manatee County and two in unincorporated Sarasota County, according to officials. Unconfirmed death cases are being processed by local medical examiners, who decide whether they are disaster-related, state emergency management Director Kevin Guthrie said.