The coast of South Carolina was hit on Friday with a direct strike from Hurricane Ian, the deadly mega-storm that carved a wide path of destruction on its earlier rampage through Florida.
The eye of the hurricane crossed over land at Georgetown, between Myrtle Beach and the historic city of Charleston, after strengthening overnight in the Atlantic.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami warned of the danger of a “life-threatening” storm surges and hurricane force winds all the way from North Carolina to the north-east Florida coast.
In Florida, meanwhile, the death toll from the storm that arrived on Wednesday with 150mph (240km/h)winds and a storm surge of up to 18ft (5.5m) had risen to at least 21 by Friday morning, but was expected to grow further, Kevin Guthrie, the state’s director of emergency management, said.
Officials fear it will end up being the biggest natural disaster in Florida’s history, despite a track record of the state being hit intermittently with devastating hurricanes over the centuries.
Early Friday evening, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Ian had weakened to a post-tropical cyclone after its South Carolina landfall, but surge, flooding and wind threats would persist.
The storm had appeared to have largely spared the historic South Carolina city of Charleston from the worst, but Charleston’s mayor said the city was expecting flooding, and more than 200,000 customers across the state lost power.
Rescue teams had reached 3,000 wrecked or flooded homes, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, said at a Friday morning press briefing, while almost 2 million remained without power, and in Lee county, where Ian made landfall near Fort Myers, there was no running water .
Parts of south-west Florida looked, in the words of one resident, like someone had dropped an atom bomb. DeSantis described Fort Myers Beach as “ground zero” for the destruction, with vast expanses of flattened buildings, and boats tossed into piles, wedged high up between houses or floating down flooded streets.
Many who evacuated have lost everything except their lives and officials warned that they had “literally nothing to come back to”.
With massive devastation and flooding from Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico, through central areas including Orlando, to Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast, officials warned the recovery from what Joe Biden said on Thursday “could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history” would be lengthy.
“We’re going to be here until the recovery is complete. It may very well take years, but we will be there,” the homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, told CNN on Friday.
Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the nine worst-hit Florida counties on Thursday, freeing billions of dollars of government resources to help fund recovery efforts.
“The impacts of this storm are historic, and the damage that was done has been historic,” DeSantis said late on Thursday after an aerial tour of Fort Myers Beach and neighboring communities pummeled by the storm.
Ian was poised to hit South Carolina early afternoon on Friday, the third hurricane to make landfall in the state in six years, after Matthew in 2016 and Isaiah in 2020 both wreaked significant damage.
Governor Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm’s arrival, and thousands of residents evacuated from areas around historic Charleston.
“We really do not want our residents out and about because eventually the storm winds are going to get up so high where our first responders are going to be recalled back to the stations,” Joe Coates, director of emergency management for Charleston county, told CNN.
“At lunchtime we have a 6.3ft high tide, which is going to compound on all of our different issues that we have, including the potential of a 7ft storm surge.”
John Tecklenburg, the older Charleston, said the climate crisis had worsened the flood risk to his city, with Nasa recording an average ocean rise of one inch every year since 2010.
“Sea rise is real, it’s happening, we are preparing but it takes time,” he said.
And US climate experts estimated that climate change increased the rainfall in Hurricane Ian by more than 10%.
Areas of South Carolina under a hurricane warning were already being lashed with high winds and torrential rain hours before the arrival of Ian, which blew up into a category 1 hurricane again overnight, shortly after exiting Florida’s east coast as a tropical storm.
The NHC said that by midnight on Thursday the storm’s maximum sustained winds increased to more than 80mph (128km/h), and governors of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia declared states of emergency.
The death toll so far of 21 and rising included confirmed and unconfirmed deaths but not yet the reported drowning of an unknown number of family members found in their home in Lee county and other unfolding tragedies elsewhere, including vehicle deaths.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism