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An early look at recovery efforts in Florida indicates a long road ahead

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ian has weakened from hurricane strength and is now dropping rain on the Mid-Atlantic. But the massive storm left a trail of destruction over the past few days. Southwest Florida was hit hardest, and that area is facing fresh challenges. The massive recovery effort is running into logistical bottlenecks and now new flooding. NPR's Martin Kaste has spent the day in the region around the epicenter of the damage, Fort Myers, and he's with us now to tell us more. Martin, thanks so much for being here.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Sure. Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So it's been a couple of days now. How is the recovery going?

KASTE: Well, I guess you could say it's two steps up and one step back. I mean, we've had good weather for rescue and recovery efforts, and they're definitely underway. But now we've got this second wave of natural disaster in the form of flooding. Here's how National Weather Service meteorologist Ross Giarratana explained what's going on.

ROSS GIARRATANA: Even though the heavy rain and all the bad weather has left the state, all that rain that we did have is continuing to drain through our river system. So we've seen historic rises on many rivers across a good portion of west, central and southwest Florida.

KASTE: And some of those rivers have cut off roads and streets - most significantly, a portion of Interstate 75 north of Fort Myers, which was completely cut off by a rising river last night that caused long detours for rescue workers and big traffic jams. That stretch is now reopened. They're still keeping an eye on the waters, though, but that delayed a lot of relief supplies and workers heading into that area.

MARTIN: And what about the human toll? What do we know?

KASTE: Well, when it comes to deaths, we really don't know the exact number yet, and it'll be a while. I mean, we're probably looking at a few dozen, but it's so hard to say definitively yet, given all this wreckage. Search and rescue efforts have moved into a more deliberate phase now. My colleague Quil Lawrence spent the day up near Sanibel Island, near Fort Myers. The island was cut off from the mainland when its causeway was wrecked in the storm, and now there's a system of pontoon boats that's ferrying people from the island to the mainland. And they're coming out at a rate of a few - a dozen or so at a time. There's also the reality that some of the people who didn't want to be rescued at first may change their minds as time goes on. Earlier today, I talked to David Merrick. He's coordinating the state's drone reconnaissance effort, and he has teams flying drones over the worst-hit areas.

DAVID MERRICK: I guarantee you, people are - you know, that are without power or without water, maybe without access to their homes, they thought they were fine yesterday or the day before. And now it's getting warmer and warmer, and they're thinking, maybe I'm not, and maybe I do need to go somewhere else at this point.

MARTIN: And, Martin, where can people like that go?

KASTE: Well, one place offering shelter is an arena in the city of Estero. As to food, earlier today, one of those emergency alerts went out to phones in the area, saying food distribution points are being set up and giving a phone number for that. Repairs to basic utilities are coming along slowly. Water systems were damaged in a lot of places by trees that got knocked over, and their root systems would kind of pull up and crack water pipes. So that's a big problem. Here's Governor Ron DeSantis talking about that.

RON DESANTIS: We have called in the Army Corps of Engineers at the request of the counties to help with damage to the water system.

KASTE: And...

MARTIN: And so how about...

KASTE: And - oh, I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Yeah. And the power - so the power is what?

KASTE: Yeah, the power situation - the governor said that statewide, the power's back for a little more than half of the customers who lost power during the storm.

MARTIN: OK. And before we let you go, as briefly as you can, how would you assess the mood there? I know it's a big state and a lot of people affected by this, but just from where you've been, what's the mood like?

KASTE: Well, you know, they're coming out of that stunned state, and it's - now we're moving into that stage of sort of bonding and optimism. My colleague here, Argin Hutchins, was in line for coffee this morning and said everyone knew each other's names, were sharing stories and buying each other coffees. So you're in that mode of let's tackle this right now.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Martin Kaste reporting from southwest Florida. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.