Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida Sunday, raking the populous state, especially its western playgrounds on the Gulf of Mexico coast, with whirling winds and pounding rain.
The enormous storm affected almost all of Florida, including Miami and other big cities on the Atlantic Coast, and scored a direct hit on the Florida Keys before swirling over the mainland. The hurricane’s winds weakened slightly – to Category 2 on the U.S. five-point scale – but emergency officials sounded repeated warnings about storm surges hitting coastal communities on both of Florida’s coasts.
By late Sunday afternoon, the eye of the hurricane – a small window of calm at the center of the storm, just a few kilometers away from the most powerful winds and rain – was over Naples, on Florida’s southwestern coast. A hurricane is only half over when the eye passes overhead, and authorities warned people in Naples and other areas to avoid venturing outside.
Fierce winds and a storm surge that can bring deadly flash floods were expected as the huge hurricane, swirling in a counter-clockwise direction, moved through Florida. Residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg, large urban areas in the storm’s path, were warned to expect winds blowing at up to 175 kilometers per hour, and the sudden arrival of waves of water up to three meters deep from storm surges.
A major hurricane has not hit Tampa in more than 100 years.
The National Hurricane Center predicted Irma would continue up Florida’s west coast Sunday night and into Monday, then weaken further as it pushes deeper inland in southern Georgia.
President Donald Trump returned to the White House Sunday from crisis meetings at the Camp David presidential retreat and issued documents designating the hurricane a major disaster for Florida – a step to release federal aid funds more quickly.
Trump said he will visit the storm zone in Florida “very soon.” He praised rescue efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard and other emergency crews, and reported that coordination among federal, state and local agencies working on the storm was going “really well.”
Asked how much Florida’s recovery will cost, Trump said he is “worried about lives, not cost” at this point in the crisis.
Hurricane Irma has been called the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, and it delivered as advertised.
After devastating several Caribbean islands and Cuba as a Category 5, maximum-strength storm, Irma winds slowed only slightly before it hit the Florida Keys – the chain of islands stretching south from the U.S. toward Cuba – early Sunday.
More than 2 million people were without power in Florida. At least six tornadoes and several waterspouts were sighted in and around the Miami area.
Miami Beach, usually bustling with tourists, surfers, and swimmers, was a rain-soaked ghost town. Streets in downtown Miami were flooded.
Graceful palm trees, a trademark of “the sunshine state,” became hazardous as high-velocity gusts turned leaves, branches, and coconuts into wind-blown weapons.
‘I want everybody to survive’
Governor Rick Scott, a familiar face to all Americans from his frequent live appeals on television about evacuation orders and other precautions, said Sunday was no time for anyone to relax: “I want everybody to survive this storm. I want everybody to be safe. During the storm, as you know, we can’t send out first responders to save you.”
Scott also repeated his call for nurses and emergency workers to volunteer their help in the aftermath.
More than 75,000 people checked into 400 emergency shelters statewide, but overall, only three storm-related deaths were reported in Florida through late Sunday. At least 25 people have been killed since Irma clobbered the Caribbean late last week.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda says 95 percent of Barbuda’s buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged. Reporters who flew over the island agreed with his assessment.
The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffered losses in its electricity network that blacked out more than one million people. Authorities said it could take up to six months to rebuild the island’s power grid.
The Pentagon deployed Navy ships and aircraft and hundreds of Marines to help with recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Air Force flew evacuation flights to Puerto Rico and to the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten, which also suffered severe damage.
Netherlands’ king is reported to be headed to St. Maarten to assist in recovery efforts, and French President Emmanuel Macron said he would be arriving in St. Martin aboard an Airbus plane packed with aid supplies.
France and the Netherlands share jurisdiction over the island that is home to St. Martin and St. Maarten. The smaller French island of St. Barthelemy, which is nearby, also was badly damaged. | via voanews