By Evan Halper & Laura King
Tribune News Service
MARCO ISLAND, Fla. — Florida awakened Monday to a debris-pocked panorama, with millions lacking electricity in steamy heat as Irma — now downgraded to a tropical storm — took a parting swipe at a northern swath of the state and aimed for Georgia.
As the storm passed, the danger lingered: Storm surges jeopardized cities along Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and the National Hurricane Center said Irma was still producing some hurricane-force wind gusts after spinning off tornadoes in the state’s central core and at least one in coastal Georgia.
Eight to 15 inches of rain were forecast for southern Georgia, and in northeast Florida, a flash flood emergency was issued for downtown Jacksonville, at the mouth of the St. John’s River, with water pouring into streets.
Although the storm’s raging winds and punishing rains lent it an apocalyptic feel as it unfolded over the weekend, damage initially appeared significant and widespread, but short of catastrophic.
By late Monday morning, the storm, still remarkably wide in its radius, was about 70 miles east of the capital, Tallahassee, in the Florida Panhandle, with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph.
Eleventh-hour toggles in Irma’s trajectory undoubtedly saved both lives and property. Last week, while the storm was roaring through the Caribbean, where it killed about three dozen people and devastated a chain of small islands, one projected track had it aiming straight for Miami, Florida’s biggest city. But it veered westward instead.
On Sunday, still at hurricane strength, Irma appeared set for a direct strike on the crowded Gulf Coast region of Tampa-St. Petersburg, but it tacked east-northeast instead, losing strength as it moved over land.
Moreover, experts say the number of deaths and amount of damage that can be expected from a storm of that strength have been reduced in recent years by advances in forecasting, which enables authorities to order people get out of harm’s way, and stricter building standards that help fortify the sorts of large public venues where people seek shelter — even if smaller wooden structures remain vulnerable.
But Irma wasn’t quite finished. As far away as Atlanta, which was earlier placed under its first-ever tropical storm warning, neighboring states were experiencing drenching rains. The storm’s effects were expected to be felt in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Alabama as well as Georgia.
While the seas to Florida’s west bent to Irma’s will, receding and then rising, the National Hurricane Center also warned of “significant river flooding” for the next five days along the storm track.
Just outside Orlando, more than 120 homes were ordered emptied as floodwaters rose, and firefighters staged boat rescues for some. Another classic Florida hazard struck nearby: A 60-foot sinkhole abruptly gaped beneath an apartment building. No injuries were reported, the Associated Press said.
In the history of record-keeping, the U.S. mainland has never before suffered two Category 4 hurricanes in the span of a year, never mind a little over two weeks. Coming on the heels of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas, Irma was expected to be one of the country’s most expensive weather disasters.
But on Monday, major insurers were revising estimates downward, though they were still expected to run in the tens of billions.
President Donald Trump expressed resolve in the face of the twin hurricanes, even if his administration is skeptical of climate changes that scientists say are contributing to increasingly violent weather.
At a Pentagon ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks of 16 years ago, Trump pledged support for those afflicted by the storms in Florida and Texas.
“These are storms of catastrophic severity, and we are marshaling the full resources of the federal government to help our fellow Americans,” the president said.
Across Florida, the damage was on a scale both imposing and intimate, doing damage not only to large-scale infrastructure such as roads and bridges but also ravaging homes and possessions infused with memories of the past and dreams for the future.
As Monday dawned, more than 155,000 people statewide were still in shelters, with many heading out at first light to check on damages despite officials’ warnings of continued hazards, including high waters and downed power lines.
At the Riverwood Estates mobile home park in Naples, on the Gulf Coast, Terry Thompson, 65, was among those surveying what the storm had wrought. He rode out the storm with his dog in his mobile home, which he’d only moved into two weeks earlier.
His neighbor’s carport roof had flown off and smacked into his wife’s car, and tree branches and debris littered the streets of the complex.
“There’s a lot of cleanup,” he said. But his car and boat were intact.
With more than 5.7 million Floridians lacking power — six in 10 of utility customers — restoring electricity was an urgent priority. Outages were spreading to Georgia, with at least 125,000 without power in six coastal counties.
After making landfall early Sunday in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, the storm spent Sunday chewing and churning its way up much of the Gulf Coast, but also paralyzing Miami, the normally buzzing metropolis on the other side of the peninsula. Most people were trapped indoors all day by wind and rain, while floodwaters rose in downtown streets.
On Monday, the city looked bedraggled, but the sun was shining.
Miami International Airport, the scene of a frantic exodus in the days before the storm struck, said it would be closed Monday, with limited flights beginning Tuesday. Hundreds of flights were canceled over the weekend. The airport’s director, Emilio Gonzalez, tweeted that the airport, hit by gusts of nearly 100 mph, “sustained significant water damage throughout.”