Hurricane Ian death toll climbs to 83, officials defend response

AFP

The death toll from Hurricane Ian climbed past 80 on Sunday as embattled residents in Florida and the Carolinas faced a recovery expected to cost tens of billions of dollars, and some officials faced criticism over their response to the storm.

The death toll was expected to keep rising as floodwaters receded and search teams pushed farther into areas initially cut off from the outside world.

Hundreds of people have been rescued as emergency workers sifted through homes and buildings inundated with water or completely washed away.

At least 85 storm-related deaths have been confirmed since Ian crashed ashore Florida's Gulf Coast with catastrophic force on Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 240 kmph. 

Florida accounted for all but four of the fatalities, with 42 tallied by the sheriff's office in coastal Lee County, which bore the brunt of the storm when it made landfall, and39 other deaths reported by officials in four neighbouring counties.

Officials in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Cape Coral and is on the Gulf Coast, have faced questions over whether they mandated evacuations in time.

Cecil Pendergrass, chairman of the county's board of commissioners, said on Sunday that once the county was forecast to be in the cone, or the probable track of the hurricane's center, evacuation orders were given. Even then, some people chose to ride the storm out, Pendergrass said.

"I respect their choices," he said at a press conference. "But I'm sure a lot of them regret it now."

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will see the devastation in Florida firsthand on Wednesday, the White House said in a statement on Saturday. The Bidens will visit Puerto Rico on Monday, where hundreds of thousands of people were still without power two weeks after Hurricane Fiona hit the island.

Cuba is restoring power after Ian knocked out electricity to the whole country of 11 million people, flattened homes and obliterated agricultural fields.

North Carolina authorities said at least four people had been killed there. No deaths were immediately reported in South Carolina, where Ian made another US landfall on Friday.

Chugging over land since then, Ian has diminished into an ever-weakening post-tropical cyclone.

The National Hurricane Center forecast more heavy rainfall was possible across parts of West Virginia and western Maryland into Sunday morning, and "major to record flooding" in central Florida.

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