(L-R) Ken Pham, Lesman Varela, and Fernando Amador clear a large tree off their home after Hurricane Ian passed through on September 29, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida. Credit - Joe Raedle—Getty Images
President Joe Biden pledged his “commitment” Thursday to the millions of Americans affected by Hurricane Ian, saying the storm and subsequent flooding has likely caused “substantial loss of life” and will require a massive recovery effort in Florida and beyond. “This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history,” Biden said at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., acknowledging casualty numbers remain unclear.
Biden said that he plans to visit Florida to observe recovery efforts, which are expected to grow in the coming days. Ian, which started out as a Category 4 storm, slammed into southwest Florida late Wednesday with 150 mph winds. Homes were ripped from their foundations, streets flooded, and power was cut to 2.5 million people. Rescuers rushed to reach trapped residents as flood waters remained life-threatening throughout much of the Sunshine State Thursday.
Many Floridians are now caught among the ruins, without power and increasingly lacking in basic necessities. Biden approved federal disaster funds for nine Florida counties with the understanding that more areas could be added later as officials become aware of the devastation. The move allows residents of these areas to request up to $37,900 toward home repairs and another $37,900 for loss of personal property, covering everything from automobiles to wedding rings. The federal government will also cover assistance for debris removal and emergency protective measures for the first 100 days.
“However long it takes, we’re going to get there,” Biden said. “That’s my commitment to you.”
FEMA pre-positioned supplies and personnel ahead of Ian’s landfall, including 300 ambulances with medical teams and plans to deliver 3.7 million meals and 3.5 million liters of water. At FEMA headquarters, Biden shook hands with employees and thanked them. “You’re busting your neck and a lot of people out there are risking their lives,” he said.
More than 5,000 National Guard members from Florida as well as from Louisiana, New York and Tennessee were activated to provide direct support for the relief efforts. Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said additional forces were on the way from Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia.
When the Guard responds to a hurricane, the initial 72 to 96 hours are typically focused first on saving lives and then on the recovery effort. There are 16 National Guard helicopters flying in Florida with 1,640 high-wheeled vehicles, seven boats, and 36 fuel tankers to conduct search-and-rescue operations, clear roads and support law enforcement. The U.S. Coast Guard, for its part, has staged 17 helicopters, 14 airplanes and 18 boats for response efforts.
“In the immediate aftermath, search and rescue will be the focus,” Hokanson said in a statement. “Our concern is saving lives and getting our folks in there as quickly as possible to make a difference in that critical time to get people out of situations that may be potentially life-threatening to them.”
Army Brigadier General Sean Boyette, a one-star military commander from the Florida National Guard, was named to manage Hurricane Ian relief efforts in the state. The appointment of a so-called “dual-status commander,” which requires a state governor and the President to concur, can marshal U.S. military forces to move supplies and streamline recovery efforts by coordinating with agencies and utilities. Military bases in Alabama and Georgia could serve as federal staging areas to provide logistics support to disaster areas if needed.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the damage to his state “historic” and estimated recovery efforts would take years. The only bridge to Sanibel Island, where 6,300 people live, was destroyed when a segment tore off and fell into the Gulf of Mexico. “It got hit with really biblical storm surge,” DeSantis said in a press conference. “And it washed away roads. It washed away structures.”
Military aircraft and vessels may prove essential in places like Sanibel and elsewhere. DeSantis, a Republican and frequent Biden critic, is considered a front-running candidate for president in 2024. He and Biden have remained in contact about the current emergency. The president dismissed any potential rift when asked about their relationship. “This is not about anything having to do with our disagreements politically,” Biden said. “This is about saving peoples’ lives, homes and businesses.”
Ian, now a tropical storm, rolled eastward into the Atlantic Ocean throughout Thursday with forecasters expecting it to strengthen back into a hurricane as it headed toward the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.