Hurricane Irma is about to land in Florida, but by 8 a.m. the Category 4 storm’s fury was already here. Torrential rains and howling winds roared across the Florida Keys as Irma’s eye was just offshore, and the immense storm’s leading edge bent palm trees and spit rain across South Florida, knocking out power to more than hundreds of thousands of people, the National Hurricane Center confirmed that Irma’s eye had reached the Lower Keys.
Meantime, tens of thousands of people huddled in shelters watched for updates as the storm swung to the west, now potentially sparing Tampa as well Miami the catastrophic head-on blow forecasters had been warning about for days. The path of the storm had shifted about 14 miles to the west. That shift means that Tampa might get spared the worst of the storm, St. Petersburg, Fla., likely will get hit much harder. Neither Tampa nor St. Pete has suffered a major hurricane in nearly a century. Access to all of Pinellas County’s barrier islands, including the popular spring break destination of Clearwater Beach, was shut off.
By 8 a.m., Irma was 110 miles south of Naples, Fla., and packed sustained winds of 130 mph, reported the National Hurricane Center. The eye already arrived in the Lower Keys. A storm surge warning has been issued for South Santee River southward to Jupiter Inlet, North Miami Beach southward around the Florida peninsula to the Ochlockonee River, the Florida Keys and Tampa Bay.
“While weakening is forecast, Irma is expected to remain a powerful hurricane while it moves through the Florida Keys and near the west coast of Florida,” according to the National Hurricane Center.
The hurricane is expected to make landfall in the Fort Myers-Tampa region around 8 p.m. local time Sunday and batter the Keys shortly after sunrise. The National Weather Service issued a stark warning on Twitter: “THIS IS AS REAL AS IT GETS. NOWHERE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS WILL BE SAFE.”
As the eye of the storm approached, authorities also warned: “Do not venture outside when the calm eye of the hurricane passes over, as dangerous winds will return very quickly when the eye moves away.” The eye of the storm is 30 miles wide. The hurricane itself is almost 400 miles wide.
In Miami-Dade County, 191,000 homes and businesses were without power, according to the Florida Emergency Management Agency’s latest update. More than 97,000 electric customers had no service Sunday and another 22,000 in Palm Beach County.
The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for a wide swath of Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida. The band of rain and tornado producing cells was moving quickly, officials said. There were no immediate reports of tornadoes touching down. At least two twisters were confirmed Saturday night. Dire warnings of a life-threatening coastal storm surge of 10 to 15 feet mean terrible flooding is on the way.
On Sunday, the people of Cuba began assessing the devastation on the island nation. Irma ripped roofs off houses, collapsed buildings and flooded hundreds of miles of coastline as it raked Cuba’s northern coast after devastating islands the length of the Caribbean in a trail of destruction that has left 22 people dead so far.
Video images from northern and eastern Cuba showed uprooted utility poles and signs, many downed trees and extensive damage to roofs. Witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins. And authorities in the city of Santa Clara said 39 buildings collapsed.
The reality of Irma and its fury was evident up north, too. While it’s hundreds of miles from the coast, the Atlanta metro is under a tropical storm warning. The warning is in place to urge Georgians to prepare for high winds, downed trees and widespread power outages. From 8 a.m. Monday into Tuesday morning, much of Georgia, including the Atlanta area, will be lashed by 40 to 60 mph winds and heavy rain as Irma barrels through the Southeast, weather forecasters say.
Some parts of Florida saw wind, rain and tornados while others braced for the hurricane or evacuated. More than 6 million people are under an evacuation order — believed to be the biggest evacuation in American history. A large tornado formed Saturday night in Broward County, near Plantation and threatening North Pompano Beach, downtown Davie and other nearby communities. “At 7:18 PM EDT, a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado was located over Plantation, moving west at 35 mph,” the National Weather Service said. “This is a PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION. TAKE COVER NOW!” The NWS also confirmed a tornado touchdown in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
In West Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast, people desperate to escape the storm have left pets behind in what can only be described as acts of cruelty. Palm Beach County Animal Care has rescued more than 50 pets found tied to trees or in cages outside Friday and Saturday. Palm Beach’s prosecutor promised to prosecute anyone who abandoned a pet.
“They are left in a yard, in a pen they cannot escape from or tethered to trees or poles,” Director of Animal Care Diane Suave told ABC News. “Even a tiny bit of sand can hurt an animal when it’s traveling through 100-plus mph winds.”
It’s been almost 100 years since the last time a hurricane hit the Tampa area head on. Those who can’t get far away are headed to shelters, and many of those shelters have had long lines of people waiting hours to get safely inside. Downgraded to a Category 3 after tearing through Cuba, the hurricane built new power as it passed over the warm water of the Florida Straits, and Irma reached Category 4 strength again, the National Hurricane Center said in its 5 a.m. update.
With 155 mph wind speeds, the monster storm’s strength could peel roofs from buildings and snap power poles. Authorities anticipate 9 million people in Florida would lose power, which could take weeks to restore in some places. Winds far less powerful already knocked out electricity to about 250,000 people in southern Florida, and the region was under a tornado watch until noon Sunday.
Irma’s breadth — the storm is wider than the entire state of Florida at 350 to 400 miles — could also unleash vicious winds from one coast to the other. For days, forecasters considered Miami the best bet to take a direct hit. Wherever the storm strikes, this will be the most devastating U.S. hurricane in 25 years.
Billions of dollars in damage is expected. For Florida to escape without loss of life would be a miracle.
“Unfortunately, there is no way the United States is going to avoid another catastrophic weather event,” said Joel N. Myers, chairman of AccuWeather. “There will be massive damage in Florida. (It will be the worst single hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.”
Massive flooding remains a concern in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, but Florida is certain to stand alone in the severity of damage. Irma has killed at least 30 people in her run of destruction through the Caribbean to the United States and reduced entire islands to little more than splintered wood and rubble. As much as 70 percent of the housing on the island of St. Maarten, a popular cruise ship stop, was damaged or destroyed on Saturday. About 2,800 tourists were being evacuated Saturday. Friday night, Irma strengthened to a Category 5 storm just in time to hit the northern Cuba coast head-on.
“This is your last chance to make a good decision,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned residents Saturday evening who had yet to evacuate or seek shelter. Earlier in the day, as he began the call for evacuation, Scott said, “This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything quite like it.”
The governor and emergency officials have repeatedly warned that they will be unable to respond to 911 calls after the hurricane reaches Florida.
“Once the storm starts law enforcement cannot save you,” Scott said.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told his fellow Floridians in a press conference not to risk their lives by going outside when the storm hits.
“Where you going? Everything is closed. If you don’t lose power, that’s great. It’s a great time to get at home and catch up on ‘Game of Thrones,’ or whatever it’s called,” Rubio said. “Don’t be the guy that gets killed by the tree.”
Mandatory evacuations began on Florida’s southeast coast and quickly spread from region to region until 6.3 million people had been ordered to leave their homes. Many of those people have made their way north to Georgia and the Carolinas. The Florida Highway Patrol is allowing motorists to use the highway shoulder in some areas to speed evacuation.
Despite pleas by the governor and local officials to evacuate, some stubborn Floridians decided to stay and face down the storm.
“Hurricane damage is primarily water rising. And I’m on the 17th floor. I have security shutters, so I should be quite safe here,” Carl Roberts, an attorney, told the Associated Press, adding that he has a stockpile of food and water inside his gulf coast condo.
In a mobile home park near St. Petersburg, one resident offered a shrug when confronted with the possible danger headed her way. State officials ordered all mobile home parks be evacuated, but Laurie Mastropaolo isn’t going anywhere.
When she lived on Long Island in New York, she stood up to Hurricane Sandy. She’ll do the same for Irma.
“If I lived in Miami, I’d be outta there,” Mastropaolo, 56, told the AP. “But here, I’ll wait till the last minute. I’m not going to get on the road with the crazy people.”
Late Saturday, the winds in the St. Petersburg and Tampa area were so high, officials closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The bridge crosses Tampa Bay and spans more than 21,000 feet. It’s considered one of the top five bridges in the world.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine tried to persuade residents holding out in the area to evacuate to somewhere more safe by warning them that Irma was not just an immensely dangerous storm.
“I beg them please leave Miami Beach; you don’t want to be here” he told them, according to the Washington Post. “This hurricane is a nuclear hurricane. It has so much power.”
Levine has imposed a mandatory curfew for the next three nights as Hurricane Irma continues to slog closer to the Florida Keys and South Florida. The curfew is in effect Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, running from 8 p.m. until 7 a.m. Police say they will arrest anyone seen on the street after curfew. Officials in the island city on the Atlantic are concerned residents will return to town believing it’s safe because the eye of the storm has moved west.
At one point in its angry life, Irma was more powerful than any other hurricane since reliable measurements became available. The mere size of Irma is remarkable. The storm is about the size of Texas, meaning that if the hurricane hovers over Florida dropping rain for two days, as expected, massive flooding anywhere along Florida’s coastline is possible. The gulf coast is in the most danger of massive flooding, from storm surges that could push walls of water up to 12 feet high onto land.
Before evacuating or taking shelter, some folks took unusual steps to protect their property from the anticipated flooding and high winds. Cars were wrapped in plastic wrap or placed on cinder blocks. Outdoor refrigerators were lashed to trees with bungee-cords.
By nightfall, more than 75,000 residents hunkered down in 400 shelters. Most of those staying in shelters are in southeast Florida, which initially looked to be the main target of the storm before the forecast shifted west. More than 15,000 people are in shelters in Palm Beach County while neighboring Broward County has nearly 13,000 people.
At Germain Arena not far from Fort Myers, thousands waited in a snaking line for hours to gain a spot in the hockey venue-turned-shelter.
“We’ll never get in,” Jamilla Bartley lamented as she stood in the parking lot.
The governor Saturday also made a plea for help to treat special needs evacuees at these shelters, saying the state needed 1,000 nurses. All 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard have been activated. Nearly 30,000 more Guard troops in neighboring states are on standby.
As many as 7,000 National Guard troops from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin are being mobilized and will be sent to Florida next week. This will be the largest deployment of Guard forces for a natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.
Florida’s famous theme parks — Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World — have been closed. Airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando were shut down.
With unpredictable Irma trekking westward, evacuations in southeast Georgia turned from mandatory to voluntary. But tempers flared in the Tampa area as families began to arrive at shelters only to find them at capacity. And shelters that took family pets were a precious commodity.
Tampa Bay shelters were filling up with evacuating residents Saturday as Hurricane Irma crept closer. A pet-friendly shelter at Paul R. Smith Middle School in the Citrus Park area of Hillsborough County began turning away residents and their pets about 10:30 a.m., and county officials were looking at opening more shelters.
Residents waited in long lines since the early morning hours to register their pets as the school cafeteria was standing-room-only with people waiting for their names to be called so they could take refuge in classrooms. “People are scared,” a county official said.
At Jack’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant in Delray, you can get two slices and a Coke for $5.50. But on Friday night Jack Wnuk was up to his elbows in mozzarella cheese and 30 years of advice on how to survive one of the largest and potentially most deadly hurricanes ever to churn over the Atlantic. The Polish-American, New Jersey transplant has seen them all — Andrew, Charley, Wilma, Matthew and now Irma.
In addition to a good New York-style pizza, Jack’s customers seemed hungry for one last chance to rub elbows with fellow South Floridians before the storm of the century came knocking on their plywood and aluminum-covered homes.
“I’m down here 30 years. I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes,” Wnuk offered as he stretched a ball of dough into a pizza. “It’s not my first rodeo.”
With reporting by Patch editors Sherri Lonon, Paul Scicchitano and Don Johnson in Florida. Information from the Associated Press was used for this article.
Main photo: Evacuees stand in line to enter the Germain Arena, which is being used as a shelter, in advance of Hurricane Irma, in Estero, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
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Originally published September 9, 2017.
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