Hurricane Irma churns north through Florida, onward to Georgia
By SCOTT UNGER, PATRICIA SULLIVAN AND DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD | The Washington Post | Published: September 11, 2017
KEY WEST, Fla. — Hurricane Irma brought ripping winds, tornadoes and storm-surge flooding to much of Florida's lower half on Sunday, as its slow-moving core battered the state's west coast from Key West to Tampa.
The massive storm - which had menaced Florida for days, and triggered evacuation orders covering 5.6 million people - made two official landfalls on Sunday before being downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane Monday.
The first landfall, at about 9:10 a.m., was over the Florida Keys, an isolated string of islands that had rarely felt more alone than on Sunday. Irma hit them as a Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds near 130 miles per hour.
Little was heard from the islands for hours afterward because residents here had no way to connect with the outside world. Though hit with lengthy periods of hurricane conditions that led to significant flooding in well-known tourist areas, Key West was largely spared the onslaught that many feared. But the island was left with no power, water or cellphone service.
After the Keys, Irma crossed over warm waters and hit the U.S. mainland at last, about six hours later, near the beach town of Marco Island. By 5 p.m., the storm was hitting Fort Myers, moving north toward low-lying, vulnerable Tampa as a still-potent Category 2 storm.
But it was misleading to speak of this storm as "hitting" one city.
On Sunday, Irma was all of Florida's storm. Irma was everywhere.
In the east, the hurricane's spiraling rainbands were so wide that they caused tornadoes and flooding in Miami, on Florida's opposite coast. In the west, winds were so powerful that they bent the Gulf of Mexico itself to Irma's shape. In Naples, and in Tampa Bay, water actually disappeared from Gulf beaches, because Irma's counterclockwise winds were pulling it out to sea.
But not for long.
"MOVE AWAY FROM THE WATER," the National Hurricane Center warned, as curious onlookers climbed out onto the mysteriously dry seabed, moving so fast that it left manatees forlornly stranded. Later, after Irma's eye had passed, the same forces drove the water back in powerful surges.
By the end of the day Sunday, Florida officials said there were shelters open in 64 of Florida's 67 counties - 573 shelters across the state, holding 155,000 people. More than 4.2 million customers, about 40 percent of the state, were without power as of 4 a.m. Monday.
Irma's arrival as a Category 4 hurricane - the second-most powerful category, with sustained winds of at least 130 miles per hour - made history. Hurricane Harvey also hit Texas as a Category 4 storm, which marked the first time on record that two storms that powerful had made landfall in the United States in a single year. Scientists say that climate change is now making such intense hurricanes more likely, since hurricanes draw strength from warmer ocean waters.
And Irma seems likely to make more history before she is finished.
As the storm headed for Georgia, the city of Atlanta - hundreds of miles from any coast, and more than 600 miles north of the place where Irma first hit the mainland - was placed under its first-ever tropical-storm warning. The storm is forecast to arrive there Monday, with wind gusts predicted at up to 63 miles per hour.
"Wind speeds that high literally can lift furniture off the ground and turn it into projectiles," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, D, said. "We're already experiencing wind damage downtown."
Late Sunday, President Trump signed a disaster declaration that should speed federal funding to damaged areas in Florida. On the same day, a White House official - social media director Dan Scavino, Jr. - shared a photo of a flooded runway on Twitter. "Here is Miami International Airport," he wrote.
It was not. Officials at Miami International tweeted back to say that Scavino was wrong. It was unclear what airport was depicted in the video, which has circulated online for at least a few weeks.
With the storm still blasting Florida on Sunday, it was too early to count the damage fully. For those in the middle of the storm, anticipation of fear turned to fear itself.
"I'm terrified," said Darla Taliaferro, 40, who was staying at a Hampton Inn in Estero, on the Gulf Coast. As Irma hit the town, she had taken shelter at a hotel where her husband Jason, 35, is an employee. With them were their children, Ramielle, 9, and Jason Jr., 8, as well as her two parakeets, Desi and Luci.
In the middle of the storm, there was a knock on their door. They had to leave their hotel room. The winds were shifting, and that side of the hotel wasn't safe.
The instructions: leave valuables in the bathroom, and come to the lobby. Quickly.
"I want safety," Taliaferro said, noting that being asked to leave her 4th floor room frightened her a lot. "My heart went, 'Oh my God!' It's my first hurricane but I can't let the kids see how scared I am."
For residents of South Florida, Irma was a storm they'd spent the past week waiting for.
But it didn't arrive in the place they'd been waiting for it.
For days, as Irma battered Caribbean islands and fattened up on warm waters, it had seemed most likely to hit Miami and then target cities along the Atlantic Coast. Evacuations were issued there, sending people streaming north and west. Some people fled across the state, to the Tampa area.
Everyone watched the storm, and waited for the turn.
At some point, meteorologists said, prevailing winds would knock into Irma like a giant pool ball, redirecting it to the north. But where, exactly, would that turn happen?
Overnight Saturday, they finally knew.
"Irma has made its long-awaited turn," reported the National Hurricane Center in its 5 a.m. advisory. Instead of aiming the storm's eye at Miami, the turn left Irma tracking further west, on a path up the state's Gulf Coast toward cities including Naples, Fort Myers and eventually Tampa and St. Petersburg.
By that point, for people on the state's west side, the storm was practically on them. Winds were gusting up to 63 miles per hour in Naples by 9 a.m. The turn had put the state's southwest corner directly in Irma's path."People have asked what can we do, the first thing I tell them is: pray," Gov. Rick Scott, R, said in a morning interview with Fox News. "Pray for everybody in Florida."
The storm hit Cudjoe Key at about 9:10 a.m. Key West - further south, at the end of the chain - endured hours of unrelenting rain and high winds, which seemed to peak at about 7 a.m. Though the hurricane felled many trees on the small island and caused some property damage, predictions of potentially catastrophic storm surges and flooding didn't materialize.
Low-lying areas of Key West, especially in the tourist-heavy streets near the Key West Bight, flooded on Sunday, with deep standing water along Caroline and Front streets. Some areas had three feet of water and were impassable by car, but there were many areas of the island that saw no flooding at all. One apartment complex lost its roof.
Officials estimated that about 25 percent of Key West's residents stayed through the storm despite evacuation orders. Several people on the island said they felt like they got lucky because the storm wasn't as bad as expected, but they also now are in the dark: There was no power, water or cellphone service as of Sunday evening, meaning there was almost no way to communicate with the outside world.
It is unclear how long it will take for Key West to regain those essential services.
After it blasted the Keys, the storm moved into open water again, headed for Florida's mainland.
Its next target was Marco Island and Naples. Irma spent all morning and part of the afternoon getting there.
Across the state, the outer bands of the storm were already hitting downtown Miami, breaking signs and sending debris soaring in the wind. Two construction cranes collapsed, and their broken pieces dangled dangerously above the street. Major streets flooded, as the storm pushed ocean water up and out of the Miami River that runs through downtown.
At the University of Miami, one isolated gust was recorded at 100 miles per hour. At least three tornadoes were confirmed in Miami-Dade County. By day's end, Miami was full of still-flooded streets downtown. Elsewhere, it was littered with downed trees, fallen power lines, busted gas-station signs and other debris, making even the un-flooded streets hazardous for drivers.
Miami-Dade Police Department director Juan Perez said his officers have yet to do damage assessments. He said he had heard no reports of looting. The big problem was the downed trees, he said. "I think it's worse than Wilma," he said, referring to the hurricane that hit South Florida in 2005.
And it rained everywhere; some areas of the state got between 10 and 14 inches of it.
Back in the hurricane's direct path, Irma was getting closer. At 3 p.m. in Naples, winds were gusting to 82 miles per hour. The water levels dropped four feet below normal. Beaches went dry. The water was out there someplace.Then: landfall again.
By 4:35 p.m. in Naples, the gusts were at 142 miles per hour. And the water was rising again: one gauge showed a five-foot rise in 40 minutes. In Estero, just up the coast from Naples, palm trees began to blow sideways.
By 6 p.m., the storm had weakened to a Category 2 hurricane, with sustained winds of 110 miles per hour. The storm itself was moving at an excruciating 14 miles per hour, up the coast toward Tampa and St. Petersburg - a metropolitan area of 3 million people that had not seen a major hurricane since the 1920s.
The Tampa area is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, because of its flat geography - and because of sea-level rise. Tampa spent all day on Sunday waiting, unsure of what Irma would be when it arrived.
"We've asked people to get to know their neighbors, if you don't already," said Jason Penny, a spokesman for Tampa Fire Rescue. "We're trying to put out a message of community, we're all in this together. We could use help from about anyone right now."
The Tampa Bay region has dodged a direct hurricane hit for nearly a century, but Penny said "reality has settled in."
"Now we realize that it's our turn," he said.
Even before Tampa's damage was known, on Sunday evening people even further north were taking precautions against the storm. Having slammed the southern half of Florida on Sunday, it seemed Irma was determined to come for the rest.
"I'm doing what I should have done three days ago," said Mike Merrill, who lives in St. Augustine, near Florida's northeast edge. Though Irma had struck the opposite corner of the state, he expected it would bring strong winds to his home on Monday. So Merrill, who runs an animal-rescue operation, had hunkered down with a generator, some loaves of bread, cases of LaCroix fizzy water, 11 dogs, a cat, and five bags of dog biscuits.
"We have enough food to last awhile," Merrill said. If food ever ran low, he said the pecking order in the house would be: "Dogs first. Then people."
Sullivan reported from Estero, Fla., and Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Joel Achenbach and Perry Stein in Miami, Darryl Fears in Orlando, Lori Rozsa in Gainesville, Leonard Shapiro in Pompano Beach, Roy Furchgott in Sarasota, and Mark Berman, Wesley Lowery, Jason Samenow, Angela Fritz, Amanda McLaren and Katie Mettler in Washington contributed to this report.