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Even though Ian is no longer a hurricane, flooding is still a major problem

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ian has been downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm, but that hasn't stopped it from moving across the state of Florida, blowing heavy winds, dumping rain and causing floods. People on Florida's Gulf Coast are just beginning to go out to assess the damage, including emergency workers in some areas who until now couldn't respond to calls for help. Millions of homes and businesses are without power, a number that's likely to grow as Ian continues its path across the peninsula. NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from St. Petersburg. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what areas were hit hardest?

ALLEN: Hurricane Ian made landfall on Cayo Costa, an island just off Fort Myers. And then there was a second landfall when it came onto the mainland near Port Punta Gorda. Those, as it happens, are the same places that Hurricane Charley came ashore in 2004. And damage assessments, as you note, have yet to come in, but during the storm, we heard reports and saw videos of a massive storm surge in beachfront communities in Naples and Fort Myers. Crews today will be checking neighborhoods like Cape Coral and Englewood. All those areas didn't just get a big storm surge. They also took a beating from the super high winds for hours as Ian slowly moved inland. And there will be wind and surge damage all the way up the Gulf Coast in Sarasota and as far north as St. Petersburg.

FADEL: So did people listen to those evacuation orders and get out before the storm hit?

ALLEN: I think mostly they did. Many people in this area, as I mentioned, experienced Hurricane Charley nearly 20 years ago. They know the dangers of these storms. But there clearly were people who did not evacuate. It was too dangerous yesterday during the storm for crews to respond to calls for help. And officials aren't sure how many may need it even today. The 911 call center was down in Lee County for a time, one of the places that was hit hardest. And today, search and rescue teams will be going door to door through neighborhoods and offering help to those who need it.

FADEL: OK, so now that the storm is downgraded, does that mean the worst is over?

ALLEN: Well, now the storm is in central Florida and moving slowly. It's not expected to leave the state and go to the Atlantic until this afternoon some time. But meteorologists and emergency managers say Ian is still very dangerous. The problem isn't wind now so much as flooding from extreme rainfall. Some areas in central and northeast Florida are already getting these heavy downpours, and they may see more than 2 feet total. We're getting reports of flooding in the Orlando area now. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says Ian is affecting more than just the Gulf Coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: But the fact is there's going to be damage throughout the whole state, and people in other parts of the state - be prepared for some impacts. And you are seeing counties in different parts of the state issue evacuation orders.

ALLEN: Many of those counties are in northeast Florida up near Jacksonville.

FADEL: So all in all, we won't know the true extent of the damage of this storm for a while, but we do know millions are already without power. Any indication of when that will be restored?

ALLEN: Well, work is beginning immediately. Utility officials say they have more than 40,000 workers who are going out today. The effort will begin in communities where the winds have dropped enough and the crews can get into because the first step will be clearing the roads, many of which are still blocked. The head of Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, warned that there's likely to be structural damage, and it will take days or weeks to repair that. The company is putting out a large drone today. They're sending it out - that's larger than a private plane - to begin assessing the damage. And more power outages are expected as Ian moves across the state.

FADEL: So with 150 miles per hour winds, I mean, Ian - it must be one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit Florida, right?

ALLEN: Right. It's tied for fifth as the most powerful storm ever to hit the Florida peninsula, behind the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and hurricanes Andrew and Michael.

FADEL: Thanks. That's NPR's Greg Allen in St. Petersburg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.