Announcing itself with roaring 130 mph winds, Hurricane Irma plowed into the mostly emptied-out Florida Keys yesterday for the start of what could be a slow, ruinous march up the state’s west coast toward the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
With an estimated 70,000 huddling in shelters statewide, the storm lashed the low-lying string of islands with drenching rain and knocked out power to close to 400,000 customers across the state.
About 30,000 people heeded orders to evacuate the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused to leave, in part because to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.
As of 8 a.m. EDT, the hurricane was centered about 30 kilometers southeast of Key West, moving northwest at 13 kph.
While the projected track showed Irma raking the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters strongly warned that the entire Florida peninsula — including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — was in danger from the monstrous storm, 350 to 400 miles wide.
Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to get out of the storm’s path, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.
As the hurricane’s eye approached the Keys yesterday, 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 5:30 a.m. “It’s blowing hard.”
Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to “resist the urge” to go outside during the eye, the deceptive calm interlude in the middle of a hurricane. “Dangerous winds will follow quickly,” police said in a Facebook post.
Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 300 kph 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, regained strength.
Forecasters said Irma could hit the Tampa-St. Petersburg areas today. The Tampa Bay area has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now around 3 million people live there.
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 closed on Saturday. The Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando airports shut down.
Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, Irma 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 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died. Tamara Lush, Jay Reeves, AP
Cuba surveys toppled houses
Hurricane Irma ripped roofs off houses, collapsed buildings and flooded hundreds of miles of coastline as it raked Cuba’s northern coast after devastating islands the length of the Caribbean in a trail of destruction that has left 22 people dead so far.
There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba – a country that prides itself on its disaster preparedness – but authorities were trying to restore power, clear roads and warning that people should stay off the streets of Havana because flooding could continue into today.
Residents of “the capital should know that the flooding is going to last more than 36 hours, in other words, it is going to persist,” Civil Defense Col. Luis Angel Macareno said late Saturday, adding that the waters had reach at about 2,000 feet (600 meters) into parts of Havana.
As Irma rolled in, Cuban soldiers went through coastal towns to force residents to evacuate, taking people to shelters at government buildings and schools — and even caves.
Video images from northern and eastern Cuba showed uprooted utility poles and signs, many downed trees and extensive damage to roofs. Witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins. And authorities in the city of Santa Clara said 39 buildings collapsed.
More than 5,000 tourists were evacuated from the keys off Cuba’s north-central coast, where the government has built dozens of resorts in recent years.
Civil Defense official Gregorio Torres said authorities were trying to tally the extent of the damage in eastern Cuba, home to hundreds of rural communities.
In Caibarien, a small coastal city about 320 kilometers east of Havana, winds downed power lines and a three-block area was under water. Many residents had stayed put, hoping to ride out the storm.
Before slamming into Cuba, Irma had caused havoc in lush Caribbean resorts such as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.