Irma begins Cat 4 assault on Florida Keys

2017-09-10 15:21
Debris blown around by high winds in the street as hurricane Irma arrives in Miami, Florida. ( Joe Raedle, Getty Images via AFP )

Debris blown around by high winds in the street as hurricane Irma arrives in Miami, Florida. ( Joe Raedle, Getty Images via AFP )

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

St Petersburg - Residents huddled in shelters watching for updates as Hurricane Irma began its assault on Florida early on Sunday as a Category 4 storm, lashing the area with winds near 215km/h and drenching rain.

Irma's northern eyewall reached the lower Florida Keys and the US National Hurricane Center said the hurricane was expected to remain a powerful storm as it moved through the Florida Keys and near the state's west coast.

As of 08:00 EDT on Sunday, the hurricane was centered about 30 km east-southeast of Key West, Florida, and was moving north-northwest at 13km/h. The Key West International Airport measured sustained winds of 80km/h with a gust of up to 113km/h, according to the hurricane centre.

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for a wide swath of Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida. The band of rain and tornado producing cells was moving quickly, officials said. There were no immediate reports of tornadoes touching down.

READ: Hurricane records broken in 2017

In the Tampa Bay area, access to all of Pinellas County's barrier islands, including the popular spring break destination of Clearwater Beach, was shut off.

The leading edge of the immense storm bent palm trees and spit rain across South Florida, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, as the eye approached Key West.

As the hurricane's eye approached the Florida Keys early on Sunday, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud and her family were huddled in a third floor apartment at a senior center in Key West.

"We are good so far," she said in a text message just before 05:30 "It's blowing hard."

Stroud was with her husband, Tim Stroud, and granddaughter, Sierra Costello. Their dog Rocky was also riding out the storm.

Stroud said she planned to step outside once the eye of the hurricane passed over. She said she has stood in the eye of a hurricane before and it's "total peace and quiet".

During the eye

However, Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to "resist the urge" to go outside during the eye. "Dangerous winds will follow quickly," police said in a Facebook post.

Florida Governor Rick Scott had warned residents in the state's evacuation zones on Saturday: "This is your last chance to make a good decision." About 6.4 million people were told to flee.

But because the storm is 560km to 450km wide, the entire Florida peninsula was exposed. Forecasters said the greater Miami area of six million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of 1m to 2m.

Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic with a peak wind speed of 300km/h last week.

It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean and as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico's bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, it was expected to regain strength.

Meteorologists predicted Irma would plow into the Tampa Bay area on Monday morning. The area has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10 000, National Hurricane Center spokesperson Dennis Feltgen said. Now around three million people live there.

The latest course also still threatens Naples' mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center's retirement homes, and Sanibel Island's shell-filled beaches.

Irma's course change caught many off guard and triggered a major round of last-minute evacuations in the Tampa area.

Many businesses had yet to protect windows with plywood or hurricane shutters. Some locals grumbled about the forecast, even though Florida's west coast had long been included in the zone of probability.

"For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we're now told it's coming up the west coast," said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St Petersburg. "As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid."

Storm surge

Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and the latest projections could shift again, aiming the worst of the storm at other parts of the state.

Forecasters warned of storm surge as high as 4.5m.

"This is going to sneak up on people," said Jamie Rhome, head of the hurricane center's storm surge unit.

The westward shift prompted Pinellas County, home to St Petersburg, to order 260 000 people to leave, while Georgia scaled back evacuation orders for some coastal residents. Motorists heading inland from the Tampa area were allowed to drive on the shoulders.

At Germain Arena not far from Fort Myers, on Florida's southwestern corner, thousands waited in a snaking line for hours to gain a spot in the hockey venue-turned-shelter.

"We'll never get in," Jamilla Bartley lamented in the parking lot.

The governor activated all 7 000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30 000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.

In the Orlando area, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World all were closing on Saturday. The Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando airports shut down.

Given its mammoth size and strength and its course up the peninsula, it could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida, and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.

Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 265km/h, damaging or blowing apart over 125 000 homes. The damage in Florida totalled $26bn, and at least 40 people died.


Read more on:    us  |  weather  |  hurricanes

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Inside News24

 
/News
Traffic Alerts
Traffic
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.