Tropical Storm Ian pounds Florida as death toll mounts; 2.6M without power, moves toward S.C. and Ga.

Hurricane Ian death toll likely ‘in the hundreds:’ said the Lee County sheriff. ‘ There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued,’ says sheriff of one of the hardest-hit areas

At least 13 people were reported dead in counties across the state, a number that’s expected to rise. Sheriffs in southwest Florida said 911 centers were inundated by thousands of stranded callers, some with life-threatening emergencies. More than 2.6 million Florida homes and business were without power early Thursday. 

Damaged homes and debris are shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla.

The death toll was rising and thousands of residents desperately sought rescue Thursday as historically powerful Hurricane Ian, now a tropical storm, hammered Florida with heavy rain and strong winds, one of the strongest systems in U.S. history.

Vehicles make their way through a flooded area after Hurricane Ian passed through the area on Sept. 29, 2022 in Fort Myers, Fla.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the storm caused a “500-year flooding event” and said Coast Guard helicopters were plucking trapped residents from the roofs of homes. Communities across the state were or will be swamped by the overwhelming waters, he said.

Frankie Romulus (left) and Kendrick Romulus stand on Sept. 29, 2022, outside their apartment in Fort Myers, Fla., next to a boat that floated into their complex when Hurricane Ian passed through the area.

“The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that has been done is historic,” DeSantis said. “We’ve never seen a flood event like this, we’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude.”

Motorists travel across the John Ringling Causeway in Sarasota, Fla., as Hurricane Ian churns to the south on Sept. 28, 2022.

More than 1 million homes on the Florida Gulf Coast are in the storm’s path, and while Ian’s track and severity can change in the coming days, one early estimate pegs the potential reconstruction cost at $258 billion, according to Corelogic, a property analytics firm. Florida is already home to the highest insurance premiums in the U.S., something Charlie Crist, the former Florida governor running against incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis, blames on his opponent.

Debris litters a street in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Punta Gorda, Florida on Sept. 29. PHOTO BY RICARDO ARDUENGO /AFP via Getty Images

“Gov. DeSantis let these insurance companies double Floridians’ rates and they’re still going belly up when homeowners need them most. You pay and pay and pay, and the insurance company isn’t there for you in the end anyway,” Crist said in a statement Monday. A spokesperson for DeSantis did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

Hurricane Ian could cripple Florida’s already-fragile homeowners insurance market. Experts say a major storm like Ian could push some of those insurance companies into insolvency, making it harder for people to collect on claims. Since January 2020, at least a dozen insurance companies in the state have gone out of business, including six this year alone. Nearly 30 others are on the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s “Watch List” because of financial instability. Industry analysts say years of rampant and frivolous litigation and scams have brought Florida’s home-insurance market to its knees, with many large insurers like Allstate and State Farm, reducing their exposure to the state in the past decade.

NPR And USA Today and AP and ABC