TAMPA, Fla.,/MIAMI: Hurricane Irma pounded heavily populated areas of central Florida on Monday as it carved through the state with high winds, storm surges and torrential rains that left millions without power, ripped roofs off homes and flooded city streets.
Irma, once ranked as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic, came ashore in Florida on Sunday and battered towns as it worked its way up the state.
The storm gradually lost strength, weakening to a Category 1 hurricane by 2 a.m. ET (0600 GMT) on Monday, the National Hurricane Center said. By 5 a.m. ET (0900 GMT), Irma was churning northwest in the center of the state and was about 60 miles (100 km) north of Tampa, with maximum sustained winds of near 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour.)
A large area of the state’s east and west coasts remained vulnerable to storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels. That risk extended to the coast of Georgia and parts of South Carolina,
Florida Director of Emergency Management Bryan Koon said officials would wait until first light on Monday to begin rescue efforts and assess damage, adding he did not have yet any numbers on fatalities statewide, the Miami Herald reported.
Damage appeared to be severe in the Florida Keys, where Irma first came ashore in the state as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 kph) in the early hours of Sunday, the paper quoted Monroe County Emergency Director Martin Senterfitt as saying.
Senterfitt told a teleconference a large airborne relief operation was being prepared by the Air Force and Air National Guard to take help to the chain of islands, which are linked by a dramatic series of bridges and causeways from Key Largo almost 100 miles (160 km) southwest to the picturesque town of Key West.
Early on Monday, Irma brought gusts of up to 100 mph (160 kph) and torrential rain to areas around Orlando, one of the most popular areas for tourism in Florida because of its cluster of theme parks, the National Weather Service said.
In Daytona Beach, a city on the east coast about 55 miles (90 km) northeast of Orlando, city streets were flooded and emergency authorities carried out several water rescues, the Daytona Beach Police Department said on its Twitter feed.
On Sunday, Irma claimed its first U.S. fatality – a man found dead in a pickup truck that had crashed into a tree in high winds in the town of Marathon, in the Florida Keys, local officials said.
The storm killed at least 28 people as it raged westward through the Caribbean en route to Florida, devastating several small islands, and grazing Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti before pummeling parts of Cuba’s north coast with 36-foot-tall (11-meter) waves.
Irma was ranked a Category 5, the rare top end of the scale of hurricane intensity, for days, and carried maximum sustained winds of up to 185 mph (295 kph) when it crashed into the island of Barbuda on Wednesday. Its ferocity as it bore down on hurricane-prone Florida prompted one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history.
Some 6.5 million people, about a third of the state’s population, had been ordered to evacuate southern Florida to shelters, hotels or relatives in safer areas.
Jonathan Brubaker, 51, waited out the storm bunkered in a recently constructed house in Bradenton, on the state’s west coast, with hurricane shutters drawn, flashlights and candles ready. As a radar app on his phone showed Irma passing by, he had seen little more than gusty winds. He still had power.
“I feel like we kind of dodged bullet on this one,” he said, adding that he would wait until Monday morning before trying to sleep. “And then, I think we’re OK, knock on wood.”
Millions without power
High winds snapped power lines and left about 5.8 million Florida homes and businesses without power, data from the state showed
Many of the evacuation orders extended until at least Monday due in part to flooding, massive power outages and downed electric lines, leaving residents unable to return to their homes to survey any damage.
TV news video of damage in Naples, a city on the Gulf coast about 125 miles (200 km) northwest of Miami, showed buildings ripped apart by winds and streets flooded by rain and storm surges.
Miami International Airport, one of the busiest in the country, halted passenger flights through at least Monday. The airport said in a Twitter post that after assessing damage, it would determine if flights could resume on Tuesday.
Irma was forecast to weaken to a tropical storm as it moved near Florida’s northwestern coast on Monday morning, the National Hurricane Center said. It would cross the eastern Florida Panhandle and move into southern Georgia later in the day, dumping as much as 16 inches (41 cms) of rain, it said.
Miami spared the worst
The storm’s westward tilt to Florida’s Gulf Coast spared the densely populated Miami area the brunt of its wrath, but the state’s biggest city was anything but unscathed.
Miami apartment towers swayed in the high winds, two construction cranes were toppled, and small white-capped waves could be seen in flooded streets between Miami office towers.
One woman in Miami’s Little Haiti neighbourhood was forced to deliver her own baby because emergency responders were unable to reach her, the city of Miami said on Twitter. Mother and infant were later taken to a hospital, it said.
Waves poured over a Miami seawall, flooding streets waist-deep in places around Brickell Avenue, which runs a couple of blocks from the waterfront through the financial district and past foreign consulates. High-rise apartment buildings were left standing like islands in the flood.
“We feel the building swaying all the time,” restaurant owner Deme Lomas said in a phone interview from his 35th-floor apartment. “It’s like being on a ship.”
Last week, Irma ranked as one of the most powerful hurricanes ever documented in the Atlantic, one of only a handful of Category 5 storms known to have packed sustained winds at 185 mph (297 kph)or more.
Irma is expected to cause billions of dollars in damage to the third-most-populous US state, a major tourism hub with an economy that generates about five per cent of US gross domestic product.
Miami International Airport was slated to be closed to commercial airline traffic on Monday.
On Marco Island, home to about 17,000 residents, 67-year-old Kathleen Tuttle and her husband rode out the storm on the second floor of a friend’s condominium after failing to find a flight out. She feared for her canal-facing home.
“I‘m feeling better than being in my house, but I‘m worried about my home, about what’s going to happen,” Tuttle said.
“I am prepared to say goodbye to my things, and that is hard,” Allison McCarthy Cruse, 42, said as she huddled with seven other adults, three children and seven dogs in the home of a neighbor just blocks from the water in St Petersburg. She said she feared the roof on her own house might not survive.
Irma comes just days after Hurricane Harvey dumped record-breaking rain in Texas, killing at least 60 people and causing unprecedented flooding and an estimated $180 billion in property damage. Almost three months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through November.
US President Donald Trump, acting at the governor’s request, approved a major disaster declaration for Florida on Sunday, freeing up emergency federal aid in response to Irma, which he called “some big monster.”-REUTERS