ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — 

Hurricane Ian left a path of destruction in southwest Florida, trapping people in flooded homes, damaging the roof of a hospital intensive care unit and knocking out power to 2 million people before aiming for the Atlantic Coast.

One of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. barreled across the Florida peninsula overnight Wednesday, threatening catastrophic flooding inland, the National Hurricane Center warned.

The center said Ian became a tropical storm over land early Thursday and was expected to emerge over Atlantic waters near the Kennedy Space Center later in the day. Flooding rains continued across the state, and a stretch of the Gulf Coast remained inundated by oceanwater pushed ashore by the massive storm.

“Severe and life-threatening storm surge inundation of 8 to 10 feet above ground level along with destructive waves is ongoing along the southwest Florida coastline from Englewood to Bonita Beach, including Charlotte Harbor,” the center said.

In Port Charlotte, along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm surge flooded a lower-level emergency room in a hospital as fierce winds ripped away part of the roof from its intensive care unit, according to a doctor who works there.

Water gushed down onto the ICU, forcing staff to evacuate the hospital’s sickest patients — some of whom were on ventilators — to other floors, said Dr. Birgit Bodine of HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital. Staff members used towels and plastic bins to try to mop up the sodden mess.

The medium-sized hospital spans four floors, but patients were forced onto just two because of the damage. Bodine planned to spend the night there in case people injured from the storm arrived needing help.

“As long as our patients do OK and nobody ends up dying or having a bad outcome, that’s what matters,” Bodine said.

Law-enforcement officials in nearby Fort Myers received calls from people trapped in flooded homes or from worried relatives. Pleas were also posted on social media sites, some with video showing debris-covered water sloshing toward homes’ eaves.

Brittany Hailer, a journalist in Pittsburgh, contacted rescuers about her mother in North Fort Myers, whose home was swamped by five feet of water.

“We don’t know when the water’s going to go down. We don’t know how they’re going to leave — their cars are totaled,” Hailer said. “Her only way out is on a boat.”

Hurricane Ian turned streets into rivers and blew down trees as it slammed into southwest Florida on Wednesday with 150 mph winds, pushing a wall of storm surge. Ian’s strength at landfall was Category 4 and, measured by wind speed, was tied for fifth among the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S.

Although Ian dropped to a tropical storm early Thursday over land, it is expected to intensify again once its center moves over the Atlantic Ocean and to menace the South Carolina coast Friday at near-hurricane strength. Storm surges as high as six feet were expected on both sides of the peninsula.

Hurricane Ian swamps Florida coast, knocks out power to 2 million people
Sisters Angel and Selena Disbrow walk along the shore of the receding waters of Tampa Bay before Hurricane Ian arrived in Florida on Wednesday.(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

At 5 a.m. EDT Thursday, the storm was about 40 miles southeast of Orlando and 35 miles southwest of Cape Canaveral, carrying maximum sustained winds of 65 mph and moving toward the cape at 8 mph, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

Hurricane warnings were lowered to tropical storm warnings across the Florida peninsula, with widespread, catastrophic flooding remaining likely, the hurricane center said.

Tropical-storm-force winds extended outward up to 415 miles from the center, and nearly the entire state was getting drenched, with up to a foot of rain forecast for parts of northeast Florida, coastal Georgia and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. As much as six inches could fall in southern Virginia as the storm moves inland over the Carolinas, the center said.

Hurricane Ian swamps Florida coast, knocks out power to 2 million people
Maria Esturilho and her son Tony Esturilho flee the wreckage from an overnight tornado spawned by Hurricane Ian in Delray Beach, Fla.(Carline Jean / South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

No deaths were reported in the U.S. from Ian by late Wednesday. But a boat carrying Cuban migrants sank Wednesday in stormy weather east of Key West.

The U.S. Coast Guard initiated a search-and-rescue mission for 23 people and managed to find three survivors about two miles south of the Florida Keys, officials said. Four other Cubans swam to Stock Island, just east of Key West, the U.S. Border Patrol said. Air crews continued to search for possibly 20 remaining migrants.

The storm previously tore into Cuba, killing two people and bringing down the country’s electrical grid.

The hurricane’s eye made landfall near Cayo Costa, a barrier island just west of heavily populated Fort Myers. As it approached, water drained from Tampa Bay.

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More than 2 million Florida homes and businesses were left without electricity, according to the PowerOutage.us site. Nearly every home and business in three counties was without power.

Sheriff Bill Prummell of Charlotte County, just north of Fort Myers, announced a curfew between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. “for life-saving purposes,” saying violators could face second-degree misdemeanor charges.

“I am enacting this curfew as a means of protecting the people and property of Charlotte County,” Prummell said.

The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia all preemptively declared states of emergency.

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