President Biden addressed Federal Emergency Management Agency employees, Florida and the nation after receiving a briefing from FEMA officials Thursday, as, but is expected to become a hurricane again, continues to thrash Florida.
"This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida's history," a somber president said at FEMA headquarters. "The numbers are still unclear, but we're hearing early reports of what could be substantial loss of life." Sheriff Carmine Marceno, of Lee County, which was struck hard by Ian, said Thursday he believed the death toll would be "in the hundreds." However, Gov. Ron DeSantis later said that number had not been confirmed.
"My message to the people of Florida and to the country is, it's at times like this America comes together," the president added. "We're gonna pull together as one team, as one America."
The president also told reporters he plans to go to Florida and intends to visit Puerto Rico, which suffered an island-wide power outage after Hurricane Fiona struck earlier this month. He also said he may have to request more funding from Congress to respond to Ian.
Hurricane Ian is sending catastrophic flooding over the east-central areas of the state, the National Hurricane Center says, accompanied by storm surges and wind gusts that will spread across the southern states. Ian struck Florida's western coast as a Category 4 storm, weakening as it progressed across land.
Earlier Thursday, the president approved a Florida Disaster Declaration, freeing up federal resources for the state. The major disaster declaration makes federal funds to Floridians in the counties of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas, and Sarasota, and can include assistance for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as things like low-cost loans for uninsured property loss. For the first 100 days, the federal government will cover all eligible assistance for debris removal and emergency protective measures.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Biden spoke with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been a harsh critic of Mr. Biden's economic, immigration and COVID-19 policies, to discuss what the administration is doing to support Florida in the face of the storm. Mr. Biden said he's spoken with DeSantis "four or five" times about Hurricane Ian and dismissed political differences when a reporter asked him to characterize their relationship.
"This is not about anything having to do with our disagreements politically," the president said Thursday. "This is about saving peoples' lives, homes and businesses."
"First thing this morning, I talked to Gov. DeSantis and again offered the fullest federal support," Mr. Biden said. "Earlier this week, I approved his request for the pre-landfall emergency declaration to provide direct federal assistance to the state for emergency protective measures to save live, including search and rescue and shelter and food. Earlier this morning, I approved the governor's most recent request for expedited major disaster declaration. That means the federal government will cover 100% of the cost to clear debris and for all the costs the state has to do, has to engage in, to save lives."
"The federal government will also cover the majority of the cost to rebuild public buildings like schools and fire stations," the president continued. "And folks in Florida who have destroyed or damaged homes, you don't have enough insurance, it means the federal government will provide individual assistance of $37,900 for home repairs and another $37,900 for lost property, everything from automobiles to a lost wedding ring."
At FEMA headquarters, the president told employees they're "doing a hell of a job" and were "reinforcing people's faith in the institutions."
Finally, the president urged Florida residents to follow local officials' directions, and to stay inside until the water recedes.
The FEMA administrator is heading to Florida this week to check on response efforts, and see where more aid is needed.
Search and rescue missions are already taking place by land, air and sea. The Pentagon has more than 1,200 vehicles and 25 watercraft supporting search and rescue operations, in addition to U.S. Coast Guard rescue efforts. Nearly 200 shelters are open in the Sunshine State.
Ian has disrupted the regular schedule in Washington, where the House select panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol postponed its Wednesday hearing.
— Nicole Sganga contributed to this report.