Recovery efforts still in full force days after Hurricane Ian’s landfall

People in southwestern Florida continued to struggle Monday with recovery efforts and, in some cases, getting their basic needs after Hurricane Ian. Power is still out to more than half a million homes and businesses in the state and the death toll has risen to over 90. At the same time, President Biden visited Puerto Rico to survey the damage there from Hurricane Fiona. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Residents in Southwestern Florida continue to struggle today with recovery efforts and, in some cases, getting their basic needs. Power is still out to more than half-a-million homes and businesses in the state, and more than 90 people in Florida died in the wake of Hurricane Ian, according to the latest counts from several news organizations.

    At the same time, President Biden visited Puerto Rico today to survey the damage there from Hurricane Fiona.

    William Brangham begins with this report.

  • William Brangham:

    Days after one of the strongest storms in U.S. history made landfall, recovery efforts are still in full force in places like Saint James City, Florida, a coastal hub Northeast of Fort Myers. Local residents are pitching in on the effort as well.

  • David Harrold, Saint James Aid Station:

    We have had people wandering around the streets. And we were able to get out there to them, get them on the rescue. We get them on helicopters.

  • William Brangham:

    This morning, over 570,000 homes and businesses in Florida remained without power, a substantial recovery from the 2.6 million who were in the dark days earlier.

    In Fort Myers, where more than 40 people have died, residents collected what was left of their homes, packing up belongings into suitcases and shopping carts.

  • Michael Rodgers, Fort Myers Resident:

    The kitchen has got to come out. The bathrooms have all got to come out. It's a complete redo.

  • William Brangham:

    The enormity of their losses starting to sink in.

  • Bill Keister, Fort Myers Resident:

    I was just devastated seeing what was happening to the property and to my neighbor's place downstairs. And it was hard to comprehend.

  • William Brangham:

    For some in Lee County, home to Fort Myers, questions remain about why local evacuation orders weren't given until Tuesday.

    The National Hurricane Center's earlier forecasts found that Lee County was outside the more direct path of the storm, but projected the area could face dangerous storm surges as high as six feet. Local officials have repeatedly defended their decision.

  • Carmine Marceno, Lee County, Florida, Sheriff:

    I am confident in our county manager, our leaders, our governor, all of us in law enforcement, that we got that message out at the right time. Now, whether people listened to it, we can't force people out of their homes.

  • William Brangham:

    Florida Governor Ron DeSantis yesterday gave an update on recovery efforts.

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL):

    There's more urban search-and-rescue teams in Florida now than in any one place in American history since September 11. And if you think about it, there's been massive events that have happened since September 11. And we have are here.

  • William Brangham:

    Beyond Florida, Ian's wrath continued north to the Carolinas and up to Virginia, which saw some of the worst flooding in over a decade.

    For his part, President Biden plans to visit Florida on Wednesday. But, first, the president spent the afternoon in Puerto Rico, surveying damage in the southern part of the island blasted by another hurricane, the Category 1 storm Fiona. It touched down on September 18 and killed at least two people and is estimated to have caused $3 billion in damages.

    The president announced $60 million in U.S. aid and reiterated that he'd stand behind the island as it rebuilds.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: We know that the climate crisis and more extreme weather are going to continue to hit this island and hit the United States overall. And, as we rebuild, we have to ensure that we build it to last.

    And I want the people of Puerto Rico to know I'm committed, my entire administration is committed to standing with you every step of the way, as long as it takes.

  • William Brangham:

    Power has been restored to about 90 percent of the island, but over 60,000 people still remain without water.

    The White House said aid will go towards strengthening flood walls and creating a new warning system to ensure the island is better prepared for future storms.

    And joining me now for the latest on recovery efforts in South Florida is Pam James. She's an executive producer at public media station WGCU in Fort Myers, Florida.

    Pam, thank you so much for being here.

    Could you just give us a sense of how things are in Southwest Florida right now?

  • Pamela James, Executive Producer, WGCU Public Media:

    Sure.

    Right now, it's really overwhelming the amount of damage that we're seeing along the coastlines. It's been described as a bomb going off on certain parts of, say, Fort Myers Beach or Sanibel or even where there's a small little artistic village called Matlacha. It's just completely decimated. It doesn't exist anymore.

    There's so much loss and devastation and people who are now without homes. But then there's this inconsistency, because we have the other half of the broadcast area that was more — let's — less phased, I should say, less impacted. There was some wind. There was some water, but there wasn't as much damage, just maybe a loss of electricity and water.

  • William Brangham:

    We know that also some of the poorest residents of your area were — suffered some of the worst damages and also are most likely to not have flood insurance.

    How are those residents in particular faring?

  • Pamela James:

    We have had residents on St. James Island. And there are some other communities that have been hit hardest.

    And a lot of these people live in trailers. And, of course, many of these people with trailers don't have rental insurance. And so it's going to be a challenge, especially down here in Fort Myers, when we are, I think, number one when it comes to real estate prices that have been just outrageously jacked up.

    So when you're dealing with suddenly now a loss of housing, this is going to be a huge issue for us for the next year at least.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that there's an issue brewing on what's known as Pine Island, which is a small barrier island off the coast, residents there apparently complaining that they were not getting enough relief, and local officials saying that it's just so difficult to get there that they should try to get off the island.

    Can you tell us what's happening there?

  • Pamela James:

    Absolutely.

    So, Pine Island is like Sanibel, which is a barrier island to our southwest coast. And the only way to get on island, other than by boat, is a bridge. And it's the only land line or the tether that is between the barrier island and our mainland. And Hurricane Ian just kind of took out both those bridges.

    So, yes, so these people are stranded on their islands if they don't have boats. And so the challenge is, is that electricity is out. Water is out. And so the government officials are trying to get recovery efforts to them on island, but it's been challenging because a lot of the residents don't want to leave.

    Pine Island is definitely a blue-collar agricultural island, and so these people are very independent-minded, and didn't want to leave the island when it was time to go. But then now they don't want to leave the island now that they need to have some of those rescue efforts taken care of.

    There are people who just want to stay and secure their livelihoods there.

  • William Brangham:

    We hope those cutoff communities do make it through OK.

    That is Pam James, executive producer at WGCU Public Media station.

    Thanks so much for being here.

  • Pamela James:

    Thanks for having me.

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