Irma takes a parting shot as it finally leaves Florida
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A weakened Irma took its parting shot at Florida on Monday, triggering severe flooding in the state's northeastern corner, while authorities along the storm's 400-mile path struggled to rush aid to victims and take the full measure of the damage.
The monster hurricane that hit the Florida Keys on Sunday as a Category 4 was downgraded to a tropical storm as it finally pushed its way out of the state and into Georgia, where it caused more misery.
During its rainy, windy run up the length of Florida, Irma swamped homes, uprooted trees, flooded streets, cast boats ashore, snapped miles of power lines and toppled construction cranes.
"How are we going to survive from here?" asked Gwen Bush, who waded through thigh-deep floodwaters outside her central Florida home to reach National Guard rescuers and get a ride to a shelter. "What's going to happen now? I just don't know."
More than 6.5 million homes and businesses statewide remained without power, and 180,000 people huddled in shelters. Officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.
One death in Florida, that of a man killed in an auto accident during the storm, was blamed on Irma. At least 36 people were left dead in the storm's wake across the Caribbean.
Irma was at one point the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with winds up to 185 mph (298 kph). By Monday afternoon, its winds were down to 60 mph (97 kph).
The hurricane's wrath in the Sunshine State extended the full length of the state and reached from the west coast to the east.
But because of disrupted communications and cut-off roads, the full scale of its damage was unclear, especially in the dangerously exposed Keys, which felt Irma's full fury when the storm came shore with 130 mph (209 kph) winds.
Search crews planned to go door-to-door in the Keys to check on residents. Crews worked to clear the single highway that connects the island chain with the mainland, inspecting dozens of bridges.
An aircraft carrier was to be anchored off Key West as an emergency center, and officials planned drone flights to survey the damage.
Video from the Keys showed houses shoved from their foundations and boats tossed onto the pavement. Emergency managers there declared "the Keys are not open for business" and warned that there was no fuel, electricity, running water or cell service and that supplies were low and anxiety high.
"HELP IS ON THE WAY," they promised on Facebook.
In the Jacksonville area, close to the Georgia line, storm surge brought some of the worst flooding ever seen there, with at least 46 people pulled from swamped homes.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office warned residents along the St. Johns River to "Get out NOW."
"If you need to get out, put a white flag in front of your house. A t-shirt, anything white," the office said on its Facebook page. "Search and rescue teams are ready to deploy."
As Irma began moving into Georgia, a tornado spun off by the storm was reported on the coast, and firefighters inland had to rescue several people after trees fell on their homes.
A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state. More than 100,000 customers were without power in Georgia and over 80,000 in South Carolina.
Over the next two days, Irma is expected to push to the northwest, into Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
People in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area were braced for its first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. But by the time it struck in the middle of the night Monday, its winds were down to 100 mph (161 kph) or less, and the damage was nowhere near as bad as expected.
In Redington Shores west of Tampa, 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.
More than 120 homes were being evacuated early Monday in just outside Orlando as floodwaters started to pour in. Firefighters and National Guardsmen went door-to-door and used boats to ferry families to safety.
A few miles away, a huge sinkhole opened at the edge of an apartment building, swallowing air conditioning units and bushes. Firefighters evacuated more than two dozen tenants in the pounding rain and wind.
In Coral Gables, near Miami, fallen trees made streets look like jungle, and damaged power lines could be heard buzzing.