UPDATE: Hurricane Irma weakened to a Category 1 storm early Monday as it moved over the western Florida peninsula, the National Hurricane Center said. Irma had sustained winds of 85 mph. “Strong winds and flash flooding still a major risk with the storm as it moves into North Florida and toward Georgia over the next 24 hours,” the center said.
Original Story: Powerful winds from Hurricane Irma whipped through southwest Florida on Sunday, downing power lines and leaving a trail of debris behind.
Forecasters warned people in the hurricane’s path to prepare for “dangerous storm surges” and flash flooding.
Now a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph, Hurricane Irma is about 50 miles east-northeast of Fort Myers, Florida, moving north at 14 mph.
Irma is already uprooting trees and turning streets into rivers.
And there’s plenty more to come as the storm climbs the coast toward Tampa.
“We’re all hanging in there, ready to get out there to help others as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Marco Island Police Chief Al Schettino said as the storm hit his city on Sunday afternoon.
Hurricane Irma first made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday morning, then made landfall in the state again Sunday afternoon when it hit Marco Island.
The storm’s impact was widespread. Even areas that didn’t face a direct hit from Irma saw flooding and downed power lines. In Riviera Beach, on Florida’s east coast, winds partially ripped roofs off two apartment buildings, forcing rescuers to evacuate about 50 people from the complex, the city’s mayor said.
— NWS Key West (@NWSKeyWest) September 11, 2017
Expected to be even more dangerous than the powerful winds are the storm surges that threaten Florida’s coastal cities.
“The threat of catastrophic storm surge flooding is highest along the southwest coast of Florida, where 10 to 15 feet of inundation above ground level is expected,” the hurricane center said. “This is a life-threatening situation.”
Mass evacuations jammed highways heading north and created a severe gas shortage in parts of Florida days before Irma hit. But as the storm neared, some Floridians hunkered down rather than hitting the road.
“We didn’t know if we’d have an opportunity to even get gas,” Naples resident Gina Fischer said.
So instead, Fischer boarded up the windows of her north Naples home, scrawling a message for the impending storm: “Irma, go away!” Then she headed inland to a friend’s house.
“We’re going to go to an interior hallway to be safe. We’ll wait until the noise is gone and until it’s quiet enough for us to come out and it be OK,” she told CNN on Sunday.
— NWS Miami (@NWSMiami) September 10, 2017
640 pm: eye of Irma is now southeast of Ft. Myers. Wind gusts 60-75 mph still be reported across the Keys. pic.twitter.com/FB510m8iUx
— NWS Key West (@NWSKeyWest) September 10, 2017
Miami faces Irma’s wrath
Gusts topping 90 mph whipped Miami on Sunday, knocking out power to more than 750,000 customers in the Miami-Dade area.
Flying objects such as coconuts turned into dangerous projectiles. And at least two construction cranes partially collapsed. One swung vigorously over downtown Miami. Another dangled over the city’s Edgewater neighborhood.
Matthew Spuler captured video of waves crashing over a seawall toward his downtown high-rise building.
“There is no seawall whatsoever,” Spuler said. “It’s amazing. It’s under water.”
The latest developments:
— A second construction crane has partially collapsed in Miami, dangling above a street in the Edgewater neighborhood, City of Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez told CNN.
— The center of Hurricane Irma is nearing Naples, Florida, the National Hurricane Center said. Airports in the area reported powerful winds, including a sustained wind of 55 mph (88 kph) and a gust of 82 mph (132 kph) at Naples Municipal Airport, and a sustained wind of 63 mph (102 kph) and a gust of 84 mph (135 kph) at Opa-Locka Executive Airport.
— A personal weather station at the Marco Island Police Department reported a wind gust of 130 mph, the National Weather Service said.
— Miami-Dade County announced a curfew between 7 p.m. Sunday and 7 a.m. Monday.
— Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has expanded a state of emergency to include all 159 Georgia counties, Deal’s office said. The decision was made in advance of heavy rains, strong winds and potential flooding from Hurricane Irma. The state government will be closed Monday and Tuesday except for essential personnel.
— The forecast track for Irma has shifted 15 miles east, the National Hurricane Center said. But it’s still not clear exactly when or where on the Florida mainland Irma will make landfall — meaning half the hurricane’s eye is over land.
“With the eye tracking this close to land, everyone needs to be prepared for the worst possible conditions,” CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
— More than 1.69 million electric customers across 31 counties are without power, Florida Power and Light said Sunday morning.
— Miami-Dade officers can no longer respond to calls for service, the Miami-Dade Police Department tweeted Sunday. Police are urging residents to stay indoors and not venture outside.
— A 6 p.m. curfew has been put in place for Tampa. Manatee County officials announced a curfew from 3 p.m. ET Sunday until 3 p.m. ET Monday.
— A storm surge warning wraps around the state, from Brevard County to Tampa Bay.
— At least 24 deaths have been blamed on Irma in the Caribbean islands, where it hit before barreling toward Florida.
‘You can’t survive these storm surges’
The governor warned some storm surges could be deadly.
“You can’t survive these storm surges,” the governor said.
Those who did not evacuate ahead of the storm are in danger, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Saturday.
“You’re on your own until we can actually get in there and it’s safe,” he told CNN.
But Key West business owner Jason Jonas said he stayed behind because he’s in a home that is “built like a bunker.”
“It’s pretty much the only reason I considered staying here because I knew that I had a pretty good chance of making it through this thing,” he said.
“We’re 30 plus feet above sea level and in a place that’s built to withstand 225 mph winds — I mean that’s a better chance than being exposed out on the highway in traffic trying to make it to Georgia.”
Mass evacuations sent throngs onto jammed highways heading north and created a severe gas shortage in some parts the state.
Irma hit Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province late Friday as a Category 5 hurricane before it weakened and headed to the US.
This is the the first year on record that the continental US has had two Category 4 hurricane landfalls in the same year.
Last month, Hurricane Harvey devastated much of coastal Texas and killed more than 70 people.
Other cities will get pummeled
Several Florida cities are in or near the forecast path of the storm’s eye.
The storm will be devastating for central Florida, Tampa, Fort Myers, Naples and Key West, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said storm surge is the main fear.
“We’re going to get through the winds, we’ll get through the rain, depending on what the level of surge is,” he said. “But more importantly, the surge will occur tomorrow at the same time we have a high tide — so that compounds the problem.”
In Fort Myers, where storm surge warnings are in effect, Evanson Ngai stayed up all night, tracking the hurricane.
“I’ve tried to get some sleep but I can’t. Just the nervousness, trying to keep an eye on it to see if its track will change,” he said.
Ngai plans to crouch in the bathtub when it makes landfall.
“Right now, it’s a little bit of gusty winds and some rain,” he said early Sunday. “We’ve moved everything away from windows. We’re hoping for the best — we’ve bought nonperishable foods and water, and we have a flashlight.”
Florida Power and Light estimated 3.4 million of its customers could be without power at some point during Irma, the company’s largest number of outages ever.
“We think this could be the most challenging restoration in the history of the US,” company spokesman Chris McGrath said.
Other states may be affected
Officials in other states are also keeping an eye on Irma. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation for some barrier islands, while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded a state of emergency to include 94 counties.
The National Weather Service in Atlanta issued a tropical storm watch for the area Monday and Tuesday. Schools in the state planned to close Monday.