Hurricane Irma continued to wreak havoc in Florida on Monday even as its force weakened, with high winds and floodwaters bringing down power lines and turning streets into rivers.
The National Hurricane Center said on Monday the storm was weakening after pummelling Florida on Sunday, leaving more than 4.7m residents without power as 130mph winds and sea surges damaged buildings and caused flooding as punishing gales swept up the state’s west coast.
Three storm-related deaths have been reported and several areas have imposed curfews. But Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, said late on Sunday that authorities had only scattered information about the storm’s toll but he remained hopeful.
“I’ve not heard of catastrophic damage. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means it hasn’t gotten to us yet,” he said.
Miami residents dodged the most dangerous part of the storm after it tracked west but downtown Miami streets were flooded, “Stop” signs twisted in 70mph winds, cranes toppled over and flying debris smashed into homes and buildings.
At least 25 people have been killed across the Caribbean. On Sunday Cuba, which prides itself on disaster management, was dealing with heavy flooding in Havana after 35ft waves battered seafront hotels and severely damaged tourist areas in the north.
Irma was on Sunday downgraded from a Category 4 storm to Category 2 with winds of up to 110mph as it hit Naples in south-west Florida, bringing threats of flash floods. The unexpected change in Irma’s path meant Florida’s low-lying Gulf coast was suffering the brunt of the Texas-sized storm, with up to 15ft of life-threatening seawater surge expected. Irma is then forecast to swing inland towards Georgia on Monday. The National Hurricane Center issued tornado warnings throughout southern Florida.
“This is a worst-case scenario” for the west coast and the Florida Keys, Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said on Fox News Sunday. “Storm surge has the highest potential to kill the most amount of people and cause the most damage.”
Rick Scott, Florida governor, added: “I’m very concerned about the west coast. The storm surge is absolutely life threatening. It’s going to be devastating to these areas.”
Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, said repairs to its power system would take weeks, threatening to leave millions in the dark. Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said on MSNBC that they expected 5m people eventually to lose power in Florida.
More than 6m people have been ordered to leave their homes in the state, the largest mass evacuation in US history. More than 500,000 of them are around Tampa, on the Gulf coast. Tampa is widely deemed one of the US cities most vulnerable to storms because of western Florida’s shallow continental shelf, over which high winds can pile more water than along deeper shorelines, followed by the narrow opening of Tampa Bay through which the surge waters could be funnelled onshore.
President Donald Trump has pledged to provide whatever resources the state needs to rebuild from Irma, Mr Scott said. On Sunday afternoon the White House said Mr Trump had approved federal funds being made available for help with the aftermath.
The damage may be significant. According to RMS, an analytics firm, Irma has a storm force of 100 terajoules, three times the size of Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas last month and caused an estimated $180bn of damage.
Mr Trump said the official response to Irma had been “going really well” as he praised the Coast Guard and Fema for their work. Asked during a press conference outside the White House about the cost of the hurricane, he added: “Right now, we’re worried about lives.”
The UN estimates that around 37m people will be affected by Irma in total, throughout the US and the Caribbean.
“The rain here was not so torrential, the flooding was more due to storm surge,” said Richard Paterson, a Care charity worker in Havana. “It’s been an anxious night.” Luis Angel Macareno, a civil defence colonel, warned that the Havana flooding would persist for at least 36 hours.
Before slamming into Cuba, Irma caused havoc to resort islands throughout the Leeward Islands. The UK has sent 500 troops to assist relief efforts in Anguilla, Turks & Caicos and the British Virgin Islands, which is also a big offshore financial centre. France and the Netherlands have dispatched relief workers and emergency supplies too.
On St Martin, 70 per cent of homes were destroyed, lootings have been reported and early relief efforts have been complicated by Jose, another hurricane, which is lashing the Caribbean. The US state department said more than 1,200 Americans had been flown out.
“Jose [has just] become a tropical storm for us. We are safe, tired but safe,” Chris Vickery, an Australian tourist on St Martin, wrote on her Facebook page. “We may be out tomorrow.”
On Key West in Florida, Barbie Wilson, a resident of more than 30 years said her house was shaking as the storm struck on Sunday morning. “We are in a stilt home that was built after [1992 hurricane] Andrew and it’s supposed to withstand 145mph winds,” she told Local 10 News, a Miami TV channel. “But . . . my glass shelves are shaking. It’s nerve racking.”
On Miami Beach, where wind speeds were expected to have peaked around midday, Corey Burton, who had hunkered down at her apartment, said she was fine despite the pounding of the wind against her metal shutters. “It sounds like someone is just hitting the shutters with a hammer,” she said.
Irma’s slow but grinding 10mph passage meant that some people in shelters and boarded-up homes were starting to run out of water and essentials.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard in London and David J Lynch in Washington
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