DeSantis says Sanibel Island saw ‘biblical’ storm surge

After his first aerial tour of the destruction of one of the fiercest storms to hit Florida in history, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared that the barrier island of Sanibel had been “hit with really biblical storm surge,” but made no mention of the one confirmed death, and provided few details about the damage he had seen from the monster storm.

Hurricane Ian “washed away roads and washed away structures’’ on the beloved barrier island, DeSantis said at an afternoon news conference in Punta Gorda, after touring Lee and Charlotte counties with Kevin Guthrie, the director of the Division of Emergency Management..

“A number of people” had been “brought off the island safely” and rescue efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard, local law enforcement and state teams continue, he said, referring to Sanibel Island.

The Category 4 storm destroyed a section of the only causeway linking the island to the mainland and, because of the depth of the damage, DeSantis warned that it will take time to rebuild.

But the governor offered no details about what he saw on his aerial tour of the damage. He spoke about the state’s robust preparation efforts and provided no update on the number of casualties or the number of aerial rescues county officials have said were conducted in the wake of the storm.

As of 2 p.m. Thursday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had confirmed one storm-related death — a 38-year-old Lake County man who was killed Thursday when his car hydroplaned in the rain.

Guthrie also refrained from providing any additional information about the extent of the damage.

“There were a couple of, a handful of, missions that have just come up in the last couple of minutes,’’ he told reporters. “I’m proud to report that we are already mobilizing personnel for those missions and also providing those resources, one of which is a generator.”

Guthrie commended the fact that they also found a mechanic for the generator for the unidentified entity.

“It was just fantastic,’’ he said. “So again, that comes from great leadership that starts with the governor,so I really appreciate that. Thank you.”

The Florida Division of Emergency Management reported in a Tweet, that as of 2 p.m. “more than 500 individuals have been rescued in Charlotte & Lee Counties since operations began this morning.”

The Florida Public Service Commission reports that as of noon Thursday there were nearly 2.7 million Florida electric customers without power.

DeSantis introduced Eric Silagy, the CEO of Florida Power & Light, who provided an update on his company’s efforts to restore power to 1.2 million of their customers whose electricity had been knocked out by the storm.

“We did not lose one single transmission tower so that it’s critical,’’ Silagy said, referring to the main grid that connects all the power companies in the state. “The backbone is up and operational.”

Silagy said 20,000 crews across the state were working to restore the distribution system, remove debris from substations and get them back online.

“There are sections of our territory close to the beach, along the barrier islands that will require rebuilding,’’ he said.

But, he warned that just getting power restored is not enough if homes and businesses haven’t themselves been rebuilt.

“Unfortunately, there are also hundreds of businesses that will simply not be able to safely take the power once it’s ready,’’ Silagy said.

DeSantis emphasized that the state will continue its restoration efforts and vowed to rebuild Sanibel Island but, because it is now no longer accessible by land, “that is not going to be an overnight task. That is going to be something that is going to require a lot of a lot of love and care. It’s going to require a lot of resources, but we’re going to do it because we understand how important it is.”

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Broken pavement lies flat leading to the Sanibel Island causeway in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. Steve Helber AP

The governor touted the state’s healthy financial situation as well positioned to handle the cost of the repair.

“We have the largest budget surplus we’ve ever had, and we’ve worked very hard, of course, to keep the economy open and make this a state people wanted to be in,’’ he said. “And so we were seeing historic reserves, even as we’ve continued to break records with the revenue coming in — with no income tax and low taxes.”

He noted that state revenue forecasters before the storm revised their revenue projects in September to indicate the state would be receiving $300 million more than expected.

Casey DeSantis also announced that the state’s disaster relief fund, a non-profit account which was activated to collect donations, had raised $2 million to provide assistance to people in need.

Miami Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this reporter.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas

This story was originally published September 29, 2022 3:38 PM.

Mary Ellen Klas is the state Capitol bureau chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. In 2018-19, Mary Ellen was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and was named the 2019 Murrey Marder Nieman Fellow in Watchdog Journalism. In 2018, she won the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Herald’s statehouse bureau is a joint operation with the Tampa Bay Times’ statehouse staff. Please support her work with a digital subscription. You can reach her at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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