Hurricane Irma Roars Into Florida

Irma Florida
A collapsed construction crane in downtown Miami. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

MIAMI (AP) - A monster Hurricane Irma roared into Florida with 130 mph winds Sunday for what could be a sustained assault on nearly the entire Sunshine State, flooding streets, knocking out power to more than 1.8 million homes and businesses and snapping a construction crane over the Miami skyline.

The nearly 400-mile-wide storm blew ashore in the morning in the mostly cleared-out Florida Keys and was expected to make a slow, ruinous march up the state’s west coast, hitting the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area by Monday morning.

Streets emptied across the bottom half of the Florida peninsula, and some 116,000 people waited it out in shelters.

By midafternoon, Irma’s winds had dropped to a still-fearsome 120 mph.

Many streets were underwater in downtown Miami and in other cities. Roof damage and floating appliances and furniture were reported in the low-lying Keys, but the full extent of Irma’s wrath was not clear.

An apparent tornado spun off by Irma destroyed six mobile homes in Palm Bay, hundreds of miles away along the state’s Atlantic coast. Flooding was reported along Interstate 4, which cuts across Florida’s midsection.

Irma Florida
Palm trees swayed as the wind blew and the water rose at an evacuated recreational vehicle park in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, as Hurricane Irma approached Sunday. (Reuters/Bryan Woolston)

There were no immediate confirmed reports of any deaths in Florida, on top of 24 people killed during the storm’s destructive trek across the Caribbean.

While the projected track showed Irma raking the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire state — including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — was in extreme peril because of the sheer size of the storm.

Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to evacuate, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.

About 30,000 people heeded orders to leave the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused.

In wind-buffeted downtown Miami, one of two dozen construction cranes looming over the skyline broke with a loud crack atop a high-rise. There was no immediate word on any damage or injuries. City officials said it would have taken about two weeks to move the cranes.

Irma made landfall just after 9 a.m. at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles outside Key West, forecasters said. By midafternoon, it was advancing at about 12 mph toward Florida’s southwestern corner, which includes Naples, Fort Myers and Sarasota.

For days, forecasters had warned that Irma was taking dead aim at the Miami metropolitan area and the rest of Florida’s Atlantic coast.

But then Irma made a more pronounced westward shift — the result of what meteorologists said was an atmospheric tug-of-war between weather systems that nudged Irma and determined when it made its crucial right turn into Florida.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of WeatherBell Analytics said the entire Florida peninsula will be raked by Irma’s right front quadrant — the part of a hurricane that usually brings the strongest winds, storm surge, rain and tornadoes.

Even before Irma arrived, it made a huge swath of the peninsula’s bottom half-unrecognizable.

Normally bustling streets were ghost towns. Stretches including Duval Street in Key West and Ocean Drive in Miami Beach were shuttered. Sunday church services were called off, and theme parks were closed.

Irma Florida
Empty Interstate 4 in Kissimmee, Florida, ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma. (Reuters/Gregg Newton)

The Tampa-St. Petersburg area, with a population of about 3 million, has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. The wind was already picking up in St. Petersburg, some 400 miles north the Keys, and people began bracing for the onslaught.

The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 10,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were being deployed.

Forecasters warned that after charting up Florida’s west coast, a weakened Irma could push into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and beyond. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, some 200 miles from the sea.

Florida Power and Light warned it will take weeks before electricity is fully restored.