As Ian tore east across Florida on Thursday morning, its powerful winds, heavy rains and storm surges were straining emergency services in the state’s Southwest.
In Charlotte County, the sheriff’s office said after midnight that emergency workers had not been able to access storm damage because of flooding, extreme winds and debris on roadways. Some workers had not even managed to reach their own families because many cellular providers were down, it said.
In Fort Myers, city officials said that first responders were prioritizing “urgent, life threatening situations” at a time when parts of the city were under three to four feet of water.
And in nearby Cape Coral, where emergency services had been suspended on Wednesday, the fire department was creating a “prioritization list” for people calling 911.
Dianna Barnett, a phone operator at the Cape Coral Police Department, said in a brief phone interview that officers had resumed conducting search and rescues by early Thursday morning.
Still, she said, there were many people on hold waiting for help. “There is a curfew, there is flooding and no electricity,” she said.
Before hurricanes and other major disasters, emergency response crews will typically station assets and resources in places where damage is most likely to occur, said Randall Styner, the director of emergency management at the University of California, Irvine.
“Once the situation becomes safe, responders will be deployed to the highest priority locations to begin their response,” Mr. Styner said in an email. “The response will typically be prioritized based on life safety, protection of critical infrastructure and protection of property, in that order.”
But that logic can be hard for residents to accept in the middle of an emergency.
In Sarasota County, the sheriff’s office said on Wednesday that as local agencies stopped responding to calls in person because of high winds, it was handling medical emergencies — including cases of cardiac arrest of childbirth — by putting its medical director on the phone with patients.
“As you might imagine, it’s incredibly difficult for our personnel to tell a caller that first responders cannot help,” the office said on Twitter.
As dawn neared on Thursday, it was unclear when or whether emergency services would resume in the storm’s wake. Several counties and municipalities said that they would resume emergency service once sustained wind speeds dropped below 45 miles per hour.
But Wright Dobbs, a meteorologist working the night shift at the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, the state capital, said that such thresholds typically vary across local agencies and departments. Weather Service experts brief local officials on weather conditions but have no role in setting the thresholds, he added.
“We’re experts in weather,” he said, “but we’re not experts in emergency response.”