Irma weakens into a tropical storm but keeps causing misery

NOAA via AP

TAMPA, Florida (AP) — Hurricane Irma weakened into a still-dangerous tropical storm Monday as it pushed inland, triggering record flooding in Florida’s northeastern corner, while rescuers in its soggy, wind-battered wake mobilized to reach victims and learn the full extent of the damage.

The storm engulfed nearly the entire Florida peninsula, wreaking havoc from the state’s southernmost point up to the Georgia line, from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf side. It swamped homes, uprooted massive trees, flooded streets, cast boats ashore, snapped miles of power lines and toppled construction cranes.

“How are we going to survive from here?” asked Gwen Bush, who waded through thigh-deep floodwaters outside her central Florida home to reach National Guard rescuers and get a ride to a shelter. “What’s going to happen now? I just don’t know.”

More than 6.2 million homes and businesses remained without power, and 220,000 people huddled in shelters. Officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.

No deaths in Florida were immediately linked to the storm. At least 34 people were killed in the Caribbean as Irma — at one point the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with winds up to 185 mph (298 kph) — ravaged a string of resort islands long known as vacation playgrounds for the rich.

By Monday morning, Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm, with winds of 65 mph (110 kph).

Irma’s wrath in the Sunshine State stretched hundreds of miles.

In the Keys, where the storm roared ashore Sunday morning with winds of 130 mph (209 kph), video showed houses shoved from their foundations and boats tossed onto the pavement. In Coral Gables, near Miami, fallen trees made streets look like jungle, and damaged power lines buzzed.

And more than 400 miles from where Irma first came ashore, storm surge brought flooding to the Jacksonville area at levels not seen in more than 50 years, with at least 46 people pulled from swamped homes.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office warned residents along the St. Johns River to “Get out NOW.”

“If you need to get out, put a white flag in front of your house. A t-shirt, anything white,” the office said on its Facebook paqe. “Search and rescue teams are ready to deploy.”

The full breadth of the damage statewide remained unclear, though, with communications and travel cut off by high winds and flooding. Search crews planned to go door-to-door in the hard-hit Keys to check on residents.

Around midday, Irma’s center began pushing into Georgia, where a tornado spun off by the storm was reported on the coast, and firefighters inland had to rescue several people after trees fell on their homes.

A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state. More than 100,000 customers were without power in Georgia and over 80,000 in South Carolina.

Over the next two days, Irma is expected to push to the northwest, into Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

People in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area were braced for its first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. But by the time it struck in the middle of the night Monday, its winds were down to 100 mph (161 kph) or less.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the situation was not as bad as it could have been but warned residents that dangerous storm surge continued. He also reported downed power lines and other debris.

“What we feared the most was the surge,” he said on MSNBC. “The surge is yet to be finished.”

In Redington Shores west of Tampa, Carl Roberts spent a sleepless night riding out Irma in his 17th-floor beachfront condo. After losing power late Sunday, he made it through the worst of the storm shaken but unhurt.

“The hurricane winds lashed the shutters violently, throughout the night,” he wrote in a text message, “making sleep impossible.”

As morning broke, he couldn’t open the electric shutters to see outside.

East of Tampa, winds knocked a utility pole and power lines onto a sheriff’s cruiser late Sunday in Polk County. A deputy and a paramedic, who had just escorted an elderly patient to safety, were trapped for two hours until a crew could free them. Both were unhurt.

And more than 120 homes were being evacuated early Monday in just outside Orlando as floodwaters started to pour in. Firefighters and National Guardsmen went door-to-door and used boats to ferry families to safety.

A few miles away, 30 others had to be evacuated when a 60-foot sinkhole opened up under an apartment building. No injuries were reported.

police arrested nine people they said were caught on TV cameras looting sneakers and other items from a sporting goods store and a pawn shop during the hurricane.

About 30,000 people heeded orders to leave the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused, in part because, to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.

John Huston, who stayed in his Key Largo home, watched his yard flood even before the arrival of high tide.

“Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” he said by text message. “Shingles are coming off.”

Irma made landfall just after 9 a.m. Sunday at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) outside Key West. On Sunday afternoon, it rounded Florida’s southwestern corner and hugged the coast closely as it pushed toward Naples, Sanibel, Fort Myers and, beyond that, Sarasota.

Gretchen Blee, who moved with her husband to Naples from Long Island, New York, after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 heavily damaged their beach home, took cover in a hotel room as Irma raged.

“I said, ‘Let’s go and live the good life in paradise’,” she said. “And here we are.”

Some 400 miles (640 kilometers) north of the Keys, people in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area feared a first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. But the storm weakened to a Category 2 approaching that area.

“I’ve been here with other storms, other hurricanes. But this one scares me,” Sally Carlson said as she snapped photos of the waves crashing against boats in St. Petersburg. “Let’s just say a prayer we hope we make it through.”

Along the Gulf Coast, two manatees became stranded after Irma sucked water out of Sarasota Bay, in Florida’s Manatee County. Several people posted photos of the mammals on Facebook amid reports rescuers later dragged them to deeper water.

President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration for Florida, opening the way for federal aid. And Florida’s governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 10,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were being deployed.

Irma once was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, a Category 5 with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph). For days, forecasters had warned Irma was taking dead aim at the Miami area and the rest of Florida’s Atlantic coast. But then Irma made a westward shift and lost some of its punch while crossing Cuba’s northern coast — just before a crucial turn into Florida’s Gulf Coast.

 

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