UPDATED: FEMA chief: damages from Hurricane Ian to be catastrophic

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WASHINGTON, Sept 29 (Reuters) – Damages from Hurricane Ian will be catastrophic and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing for potentially thousands of people to be displaced in the long-term, the director of the agency said on Thursday.

“I don’t think that we can quantify it yet,” FEMA Director Deanne Criswell told CNN when asked about damages from the storm. “But I can tell you that it is going to be catastrophic.”

Hurricane Ian, one of the mightiest to hit the U.S. mainland in recent years, flooded communities and left more than two million homes and businesses without power as it battered Florida’s Gulf Coast with howling winds, torrential rains and raging surf.

By Thursday morning, Ian had weakened into a tropical storm and was trekking across Florida, leaving Gulf Coast residents to pick up the pieces.

But it was still expected to produce strong winds, heavy rains and storm surge across portions of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The storm, packing maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph), was about 35 miles (55 km) southwest of Cape Canaveral, the Miami-based forecaster said.

Ian blasted ashore on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph). It quickly turned the region’s flat, low-lying landscape into a scene of devastation.

Roiling seawaters swept into waterfront homes in Naples, Fort Myers and other towns and cities. Firefighters waded through chest-high waters to rescue people, including one woman in Naples who was stranded in her car.

In Venice and elsewhere, downed trees and power lines littered roadways, roofs were ripped off homes, and water poured into neighborhoods. Boats at their moorings were tossed around like corks.

There were no official reports of storm-related fatalities or serious injuries in Florida. But U.S. border authorities said 20 Cuban migrants were missing after their boat sank off the coast on Wednesday.

An unspecified number of people were stranded in high-risk areas after choosing to ride out the storm at home rather than heed evacuation orders, but they were beyond the immediate reach of rescue crews, Governor Ron DeSantis said.

“This storm is doing a number on the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.

Airlines cancelled almost 2,000 U.S. flights for Thursday after Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in one of most powerful U.S. storms in recent years.

The hurricane is causing significant disruptions to U.S. air travel, especially in the southeast United States. Since Tuesday airlines have cancelled more than 5,000 flights through Friday.

Airlines cancelled 2,163 flights Wednesday as a number of Florida airports temporarily halted operations, including Tampa, Orlando, Sarasota-Bradenton, Melbourne, Daytona Beach, Naples and St Petersburg/Clearwater.

Airline tracking website Flightaware said 1,935 flights for Thursday had been canceled and 738 Friday flights scrapped. Airlines cancelled 403 flights Tuesday ahead of the storm.

The Orlando airport said it expects to resume commercial operations sometime on Friday. The Tampa airport said it will be closed through at least Thursday.

Walt Disney said on Tuesday it would close its Orlando theme parks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Florida is a major part of U.S. aviation, and some carriers like JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines typically expect 40% or more of their daily flights to touch a Florida airport.

Through Wednesday, JetBlue canceled 25% of its U.S. flights and 20% of Thursday flights, while Southwest cancelled 13% of Wednesday flights and 9% for Thursday. Another 3,106 U.S. flights were delayed on Wednesday.

Airlines offered waivers for travelers impacted by the hurricane to rebook tickets without charge.

Hurricane Ian plowed into Florida’s Gulf Coast with catastrophic force on Wednesday, unleashing howling winds, torrential rains and a treacherous surge of ocean surf that made it one of the most powerful U.S. storms in recent years.

Crashing ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour (241 kph), Ian quickly transformed an idyllic stretch of sandy beaches and coastal towns into a disaster zone inundated by seawater.

Early video images of the storm’s fury on local TV and social media showed floodwaters sweeping away cars, nearly reaching rooftops in some communities and the ruins of homes as palm trees were bent almost in half.

A handout image captured by NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite and made available by the Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch (RAMMB) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) shows Hurricane Ian approaching the US state of Florida, 28 September 2022, after making landfall in western Cuba on 27 September 2022. EPA-EFE/RAMMB/NOAA/NESDIS HANDOUT

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