US president Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Florida and pledged federal support after Hurricane Ian churned through the state, causing widespread damage and leaving millions of residents without power.

More than 2.6mn utility customers were estimated to have lost electricity as emergency crews began to assess destruction from the storm, which made landfall on Florida’s south-west coast on Wednesday with maximum sustained winds of 150mph, before crossing the peninsula and reaching the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday.

High-speed winds, destructive waves and a storm surge of up to 18ft left debris strewn across neighbourhoods, knocked down houses, trapped people inside buildings and forced businesses and airports to close.

The White House said Biden called Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida who has been one of the president’s harshest critics, on Thursday morning to discuss the federal response to the hurricane. Biden said Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would visit Florida on Friday.

The president said Ian “could be the deadliest storm in Florida’s history”, with early reports of a “substantial loss of life”. The deadliest hurricane to previously hit the state, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, caused 15 direct deaths in Florida and 26 in the US overall.

Homes, boats and docks in ruin in Fort Myers Beach
Homes, boats and docks in ruin in Fort Myers Beach © AP

The National Hurricane Center said Ian, which weakened to a tropical storm as it passed through Florida, would regain intensity as it moved north over the Atlantic and make a second landfall as a hurricane along the South Carolina coast on Friday.

The NHC on Thursday morning warned that “life-threatening catastrophic flash and urban flooding, with major to record flooding along rivers” would continue in central Florida. Similar conditions could be expected across portions of north-east Florida, south-eastern Georgia and eastern South Carolina from Friday and throughout the weekend.

In Naples, about 110 miles west of Miami, officials warned that half of the city’s streets were “not passable” because of flooding and said water levels might rise further. Fort Myers officials said portions of the city were under 3ft to 4ft of water and that first responders were trying to assist in “urgent, life-threatening conditions”.

Carmine Marceno, sheriff of Lee County, told local television reporters he estimated fatalities in the county to be “in the hundreds” and that there were “thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued”, but admitted he did not have confirmed figures.

A section of the damaged Sanibel Causeway that collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico
A section of the damaged Sanibel Causeway that collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico © AP

Sanibel Causeway, a bridge linking Sanibel Island on the south-west coast of Florida with the mainland, has collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico leaving people stranded. “It got hit with a really biblical storm surge,” DeSantis said.

The governor’s office said search and rescue operations had been under way since 1am on Thursday. More than 42,000 utility line workers were responding to the power outages.

Airlines cancelled more than 2,100 US flights on Wednesday and a further 1,900 scheduled for Thursday, according to flight tracker FlightAware. Florida is a major destination for US carriers and airports in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Fort Myers are closed. Southwest Airlines, which has a heavy presence in the state, led cancellations on Thursday, scrapping 10 per cent of its flights.

Biden’s declaration of a major disaster makes federal funding available to people in the counties of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota. The federal government will also cover costs of debris removal and emergency protective measures for 30 days, the White House said in a statement.

Federal officials are already dealing with the devastation caused by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico this month, which killed more than a dozen people and left hundreds of thousands without power.

Global warming is changing the nature of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, causing them to be more frequent and intense because of the rise in global temperatures of at least 1.1C as a result of human activity since pre-industrial times.

Additional reporting by Caitlin Gilbert and Steff Chávez in New York and James Politi in Washington and Claire Bushey in Chicago

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