TAMPA, Florida (AP) — A weakened but still dangerous Irma pushed inland Monday as it hammered Florida with winds and floodwaters that created hazards even for rescuers trying to help beleaguered residents.
Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm over Florida, but it still had winds near hurricane force. Its outer bands were also blowing into Georgia, where the storm’s center was expected to arrive later in the day. With rough conditions persisting across Florida, many communities in Irma’s wake feared what destruction would be revealed as daylight allowed authorities to canvass neighborhoods.
Winds knocked a utility pole and power lines onto a sheriff’s cruiser late Sunday in Polk County east of Tampa, illustrating the dangerous conditions for emergency personnel. A deputy and a paramedic, who had just escorted an elderly patient to safety, were trapped for two hours until a crew could free them. Both were unhurt.
As of 8 a.m. EDT Monday, Irma was centered about 30 miles north-northeast of Cedar Key and was moving north-northwest at 18 mph.
And more than 120 homes were being evacuated early Monday in Orange County, just outside the city of Orlando, as floodwaters started to pour in. Firefighters and the National Guard were going door-to-door and using boats to ferry families to safety. A few miles away, 30 others had to be evacuated when a 60-foot sinkhole opened up under an apartment building. No injuries were reported in either case.
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 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 couldn’t open the electric shutters to see outside.
“It’s so dark in here,” he said.
Nearly 4.5 million homes and businesses across Florida lost power, and utility officials said it will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone. More than 100,000 were in the dark in Georgia.
Irma’s center was about 105 miles (170 km) north of Tampa when forecasters announced it had weakened to a tropical storm. However, they warned its maximum sustained winds were 70 mph (110 kph), with higher gusts.
The monster storm, which arrived in Florida as a Category 4 hurricane, has toppled at least three constructions cranes — two over downtown Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale.
Curfews were imposed 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 TV cameras looting sneakers and other items from a sporting goods store and a pawn shop during the hurricane.
More than 2.7 million homes and businesses across the state lost power, and utility officials said it will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone.
While Irma raked the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire state — including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — was in danger 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 part because to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.
John Huston, who stayed in his Key Largo home, watched his yard flood even before the arrival of high tide.
“Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” he said by text message. “Shingles are coming off.”
Irma made landfall just after 9 a.m. at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles outside Key West. During the afternoon, it rounded Florida’s southwestern corner and hugged the coast closely as it pushed toward Naples, Sanibel, Fort Myers and, beyond that, Sarasota, at 14 mph (23 kph).
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.
Some 400 miles north of the Keys, people in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area started bracing for the onslaught. The Tampa Bay area, with a population of about 3 million, has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921.
“I’ve been here with other storms, other hurricanes. But this one scares me,” Sally Carlson said as she snapped photos of the waves crashing against boats in St. Petersburg. “Let’s just say a prayer we hope we make it through.”
After leaving Florida, a weakened Irma is expected to 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.
President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration for Florida, opening the way for federal aid.
“Once this system passes through, it’s going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives,” Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Florida’s governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 10,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were being deployed.
Irma at one time was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, a Category 5 with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph), and its approach set off alarm in Florida.
For days, forecasters had warned that Irma was taking dead aim at the Miami area and the rest of the state’s Atlantic coast.
But then Irma made a more pronounced westward shift that put a bull’s-eye on the Tampa area — 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.
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