TAMPA (FLORIDA) — A weakened but still dangerous Irma pushed inland yesterday as it hammered Florida with winds and caused flooding that created hazards for rescuers trying to help beleaguered residents.
Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm, but it was still producing “some wind gusts to near-hurricane force” over Florida, the National Hurricane Centre said. As of 8am local time, Irma was about 170km north-west of Tampa, with maximum sustained winds of 110kmh.
Much of Florida’s east and west coasts remained vulnerable to storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels.
With rough conditions persisting across Florida, many communities feared what destruction would be revealed as the storm moved on.
Nearly 5.8 million homes and businesses across Florida lost power, and utility officials said it would take weeks to restore electricity to everyone.
The state’s largest city, Miami, was spared the brunt of the storm but still battered. Utility crews were already on the streets there clearing downed trees and utility lines. All causeways leading to Miami Beach were closed by the police.
In Redington Shores west of Tampa, attorney Carl Roberts spent a sleepless night riding out Irma in his 17th floor beachfront condo. After losing power late on 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 could not open the electric shutters to see outside. “It’s so dark in here,” he said.
The monster storm, which arrived in Florida as a Category 4 hurricane, toppled at least three constructions cranes — two over downtown Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale. At least four deaths were reported in Florida after the storm arrived on Sunday.
People in the heavily populated Tampa-St Petersburg area had feared a first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, but the storm weakened to a Category 2 as it approached the area. Officials in Tampa lifted the city’s curfew at 8am local time, amid early assessments showing some debris, minimal flooding and no major damage.
“It’s looking good,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. “The first blush is that not only did we dodge a bullet, but we survived pretty well. Not a lot of flooding. Tree removal, debris — don’t want to say it’s negligible, but it’s manageable.”
However, he warned residents that dangerous storm surge continued.
“What we feared the most was the surge,” he said in an interview on MSNBC. “The surge is yet to be finished.”
Meanwhile, rescue efforts ramped up in the evacuated neighbourhood near Orlando as guardsmen in helmets and fatigues rolled through standing water in a high-clearance vehicle.
Firefighters rescued a puppy from one of the homes there and leashed the anxious dog to the front of one of their trucks to give it water and food. In Daytona Beach, on the east coast about 90km north-east of Orlando, city streets were flooded and emergency authorities carried out several water rescues, the Daytona Beach Police Department said on Twitter.
As the sun rose in Orlando, many tried to survey the damage, but the authorities warned that conditions remained dangerous and asked people not to venture outside because of a curfew.
In one of the largest US evacuations, nearly seven million people in the south-east were warned to seek shelter, including 6.4 million in Florida alone. More than 200,000 people waited in shelters across Florida.
Irma is expected to head north into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and beyond. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, where many schools cancelled classes.
Mr Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, said the authorities had only scattered information about damage.
“I’ve not heard of catastrophic damage. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means it hasn’t gotten to us yet,” he said. AGENCIES