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At least 100 dead from Hurricane Ian as Florida’s top emergency official defends Lee County over delayed evacuations

Hurricane Ian’s death toll reached 100 Monday as Florida’s top emergency administrator pushed back against growing criticism of Lee County officials who were accused of being slow to evacuate low-lying communities.

The latest count was 96 deaths in Florida and four in North Carolina. Lee County, Florida, where officials didn’t order evacuations until Tuesday, 54 had been confirmed dead. Ian made landfall Wednesday, devastating Fort Myers and Sanibel Island.

“I believe Lee County and their administration …. made the best decision they felt was right for their community at that time,” said Kevin Guthrie, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “And I will never second-guess a local emergency manager on their decision.”

While other nearby jurisdictions took such action a day or two earlier than Lee County, he refused to criticize the decisions.

“Emergency management directors do not have a crystal ball,” Guthrie told reporters. “They made the best decision on the information they had at the time.”

Lugo Elieser and his wife, Mara, who kept a boat docked nearby, look at the destroyed bridge leading to Pine Island in Matlacha, Fla., on Sunday. The only bridge to the island is heavily damaged, so it can be reached only by boat or air. Gerald Herbert / AP

Monday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis was focused on the rescue efforts.

“Let’s spend a little more time … maybe thanking the people that are out there on the front lines saving people’s lives,” he said from Cape Coral, part of the hard-hit region of southwest Florida.

The governor said first responders and support crews have made more than 1,900 rescues since the storm hit Thursday.

A representative of the Lee County Manager’s Office could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.

Huge swaths of southwest and central Florida were still struggling to pick up the pieces and turn on lights days after Ian blew through their communities last week.

Florida residents, left without power in the wake of Ian, could be in the dark for the rest of the week — if they dodged major storm damage.

There were 527,921 homes and businesses without power Monday, according to PowerOutage.us. In those houses and commercial buildings where “infrastructure is still standing,” power should be back by Sunday, officials said.

Authorities also asked Floridians to stay home and out of the way of rescue and cleanup crews Monday.

“If you don’t need to be on the roadways, don’t be on the roadways,” said Col. Gene Spaulding, the director of the Florida Highway Patrol.

He also warned motorists that a multitude of roads and bridges are still not safe for passage.

“We still have several roadways that are under water. Keep in mind that just because the water recedes, don’t necessarily mean the roadway is safe to travel on,” Spaulding said.

“There is high likelihood of washouts under the asphalt, under the roadways. So please don’t try to drive around barricades.”

Image: Florida's Southern Gulf Coast Continues Clean Up Efforts In Wake Of Hurricane Ian
People remove storm-damaged items from a home Sunday in Bonita Springs, Fla.Sean Rayford / Getty Images

Remnants of the one-time Category 4 storm continued to douse the mid-Atlantic on Monday with rain. About 16 million were under flood alerts in coastal North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.

High winds and rain will continue in these communities Monday and Tuesday with up to 3 inches in coastal regions and up to an inch in more inland areas.

High winds were expected to blow through Norfolk, Virginia (45 mph), Atlantic City, New Jersey (34 mph), Washington, D.C., (36 mph), New York (29 mph) and Boston (29 mph) on Monday.

Alex Lo and Dennis Romero contributed.

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