Hurricane Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday morning, but officials have warned the powerful storm that brought life-threatening storm surges, floods that left people stranded in their homes and knocked out power to more than 2 million was not over.
Ian had maximum sustained winds of near 65 mph with higher gusts early Thursday as it moved slowly through central Florida on its way to the western Atlantic, according to the National Hurricane Center.
By 5 a.m., Ian was around 55 miles southwest of Cape Canaveral and moving northeast at 9 mph, the hurricane center said.
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Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa around 3 p.m. Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds, forecasters said.
The storm is believed to be one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded making landfall in Florida.
Around 2.4 million customers in Florida were without power early Thursday after Ian struck the state’s western coast, causing a path of destruction as it moved toward the Atlantic Ocean.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said Wednesday evening the damage is extensive in the county, which includes Cayo Costa, Fort Myers and Cape Coral. The full scope of the impact was not known as the storm and winds still raged.
Rescue crews were forced to wait for conditions to improve before going to the aid of people stranded by high water.
In Lee County, there were also reports of vehicles "floating out into the ocean," but Sheriff Carmine Marceno said officials were not able to investigate or respond to calls of people trapped until winds dropped below 45 mph.
“Those that are in need: We want to get to you, and we will get to you as soon as possible," he said in a video address shortly before 8 p.m.
Terry Mazany hunkered down on the 22nd floor of a Fort Myers high-rise with his wife and 91-year-old mother as the water rose and winds whipped the building.
“We are trapped. There is 8 feet of water around us,” Mazany, who moved to Florida from California a year ago, told MSNBC. He noted that the elevators were also shut down.
"It started relatively manageable but the last 12 hours we have dealt with that freight train of 100-plus mile an hour winds shaking the building, swaying," he said.
Though Ian was expected to continue to weaken, the hurricane center cautioned that it could be near hurricane strength when it moved over Florida’s east coast Thursday.
Central and northeast Florida could get 20 inches of rain, and life-threatening storm surge remained a risk for parts of Florida’s western and eastern coasts, the hurricane center said.
Florida’s Atlantic coast from northeast of Orlando into Georgia could see storm surge of 6 feet, it said.
Radar indicated that 4 to 5 inches of rain per hour was falling in the hurricane’s heavier bands Wednesday, said Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center.
“Those are incredibly heavy rainfall rates,” Rhome said Wednesday night on MSNBC. The storm’s slow speed was prolonging the damaging wind but also increasing the potential for flooding, he said.
Tracking website poweroutage.us put the number of Florida customers without electricity at more than 2.4 million early Thursday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the intensity of the storm will be historic.
“At a minimum, it’s going to be a very strong Category 4 that’s going to rank as one of the top five hurricanes to ever hit the Florida peninsula,” he said.
The hurricane is forecast move across central Florida and be over the Atlantic Ocean later Thursday.
But it then will likely turn north and approach the northeastern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts Friday, according to the hurricane center.
The governors of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina have declared states of emergency ahead of the storm’s arrival.