Hurricane Ian — a major category 4 storm — has made landfall in Florida
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Hurricane Ian made landfall today in southwest Florida as a powerful Category 4 storm with sustained winds at 150 miles per hour. It has since been downgraded to a Category 3 storm - still powerful. The storm has moved slowly up the state all day long, bringing with it a massive storm surge, flooding and nonstop rain. It is now losing a little strength as it continues inland, but the impacts from the storm will be felt for hours and hours in this area.
And here to give us an update is NPR's Liz Baker, who is in St. Petersburg, just north of where Ian came ashore. Hi, Liz.
LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK. So can you first just tell us about some of the first impacts of Ian? What did you see?
BAKER: Well first, the wind started with a little light rain, and that wind is no joke. It's been fierce all day long. But the biggest concern is the flooding. That comes from two sources with this storm, rainfall and storm surge, which is that rush of seawater pushed by the hurricane's spinning winds. The governor said this evening that the surge got up to 12 feet in some spots, although we may learn later that it was even higher than that. And video on Twitter shows cars floating down the streets of downtown Naples, seawater lapping at second-story windows in Fort Myers Beach. It's pretty high.
Officials do say that storm surge has peaked. And that's good news. But the threat of flooding caused by rain is still very high because Ian could bring as much as 10 to 15 inches of rain, and that's being dumped all over the Florida peninsula. In fact, several counties on the east coast of Florida now have evacuation orders for low-lying areas, especially near rivers. And those places are hundreds of miles away from the eye of the storm, but still feeling its impact.
CHANG: Wow. Any idea how many people might have stayed behind rather than evacuate?
BAKER: There's no way to know that right now. Authorities say they do believe the majority of people have evacuated, especially the most dangerous areas like barrier islands.
BAKER: But there's always those who stay home...
BAKER: ...Either because they can't afford to leave, because they don't want to or because they don't understand the risk of staying. I was out driving around a mobile home park in St. Petersburg earlier today and came across 90-year-old Paul Licea, who was packing a few things into his car. And he had planned on evacuating later tonight but decided to leave early. His family helped convince him it wasn't worth the risk of staying even with a roof strapped down against the wind.
PAUL LICEA: You don't know, you know? That's the problem. I said, you know, we have the hurricane straps here. I said, the house'll be gone, but the straps will be here with the chassis. So the family's after me to get out of town.
BAKER: And it's a really good thing he left when he did, Ailsa. It's now way too dangerous to leave this area. Anyone who stayed behind is instructed to shelter in place and wait it out. And some counties have imposed a curfew as well to keep people from wandering around during that momentary calm of the hurricane's eye.
CHANG: You know, Liz, I'm thinking about some of these images you're mentioning, like cars floating down streets, homes under water. Are these people being rescued?
BAKER: No, not yet. These areas that have the high storm surge are still experiencing the worst of the storm. And it's just way too dangerous for first responders to go out and help them. The conditions right now also make it really hard to know how many people need help. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said in a briefing that 911 call centers have gotten hundreds of calls today.
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RON DESANTIS: The folks were told in these areas of the hazards. You know, they were given time to be able to make arrangements and to leave. Some chose not to do that. They would have probably been better off doing that. Nevertheless, if people are in harm's way, you know, we're going to go and do whatever we can to help those folks.
BAKER: But he said those rescue efforts won't be able to start until first light tomorrow. So it's going to be a long night ahead for those who are waiting for help.
CHANG: That is NPR's Liz Baker in St. Petersburg, Fla. Thank you so much, Liz.
BAKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.