Hurricane Irma Pounds Florida; Extent of Damage Not Yet Clear

The crumpled canopy of a gas station damaged by Hurricane Irma in Bonita Springs, Florida, Sunday. (Reuters/Bryan Woolston)

TAMPA, Florida (AP/Reuters) - Hurricane Irma pounded heavily populated areas of central Florida on Monday as it carved through the state with high winds, storm surges and torrential rains that left millions without power, ripped roofs off homes and flooded city streets.

Irma, once ranked as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic, came ashore in Florida on Sunday and battered towns as it worked its way up the state.

The storm gradually lost strength, weakening to a Category 1 hurricane overnight, the National Hurricane Center said. By 5 a.m. ET, Irma was churning northwest in the center of the state and was about 60 miles north of Tampa, with maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour.

Much of the state’s east and west coasts remained vulnerable to storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels. That risk extended to the coast of Georgia and parts of South Carolina, the hurricane center said.

Officials planned to wait until first light on Monday to begin rescue efforts and assess damage, the Miami Herald cited Florida Director of Emergency Management Bryan Koon as saying. He did not give any numbers on possible fatalities.

Damage appeared to be severe in the Florida Keys, where Irma first came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph in the early hours of Sunday, the paper quoted Monroe County Emergency Director Martin Senterfitt as saying.

A large military airborne relief operation was being prepared to take help to the chain of islands, which are linked by a dramatic series of bridges and causeways from Key Largo almost 100 miles southwest to the city of Key West, Senterfitt told a teleconference.

Early on Monday, Irma brought gusts of up to 100 mph and torrential rain to areas around Orlando, one of the most popular areas for tourism in Florida, the National Weather Service said.

Irma was ranked a Category 5, the rare top end of the scale of hurricane intensity, for days, and its ferocity as it bore down on hurricane-prone Florida prompted one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history. Some 6.5 million people, about a third of the state’s population, had been ordered to evacuate southern Florida. Residents fled to shelters, hotels or relatives in safer areas.

On Sunday, Irma claimed its first U.S. fatality – a man found dead in a pickup truck that had crashed into a tree in high winds in the town of Marathon, in the Florida Keys.

High winds snapped power lines and left about 4.5 million Florida homes and businesses without power in the state, whose economy represents about 5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Irma was forecast to continue churning northward along Florida’s Gulf Coast during Monday morning, further weakening along the way before diminishing to tropical-storm status over far northern Florida or southern Georgia later in the day.

It could dump as much as 25 inches of rain in parts of Florida and as much as 16 inches in parts of Georgia, prompting flash flood and mudslide warnings, the National Hurricane Center said.

Irma continued its slog north along Florida’s western coast, having blazed a path of unknown destruction. With communication cut to some of the Florida Keys, where Irma made landfall Sunday, and rough conditions persisting across the peninsula, many held their breath for what daylight might reveal.

The monster storm measured more than 400 miles wide, and its winds of up to 130 mph sucked the ocean water out of bays, swamped much of downtown Miami and toppled at least three constructions cranes — two over downtown Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale.

Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, said late Sunday that authorities had only scattered information about the storm’s toll.

“I’ve not heard of catastrophic damage. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means it hasn’t gotten to us yet,” Koon said.

In the low-lying Keys, where a storm surge of over 10 feet was recorded, appliances and furniture were seen floating away, and Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark said the ocean waters were filled with navigation hazards, including sunken boats.

The county administrator, Roman Gastesi, said crews would begin house-to-house searches Monday morning to check on survivors. And an airborne relief mission, led by C-130 military cargo planes, was gearing up to bring emergency supplies to the Keys.

Storm surge and tornadoes were two big concerns. The National Hurricane Center said a federal tide gauge in Naples reported a 7-foot rise in water levels in just 90 minutes late Sunday. And an apparent tornado spun off by Irma destroyed six mobile homes in Palm Bay, midway up the Atlantic coast. Flooding was reported along Interstate 4, which cuts across Florida’s midsection.

Curfews were imposed overnight in Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and much of the rest of South Florida, and some arrests of violators were reported. Miami Beach barred outsiders from the island.

Fort Lauderdale police arrested nine people they said were caught on surveillance 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.

Irma made landfall just after 9 a.m. Sunday at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles 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.

Some 400 miles 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.

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 earlier was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, a Category 5 with a peak wind speed of 185 mph. 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.