FORT MYERS (FLORIDA) — Hurricane Irma roared through Florida yesterday with punishing 209kmh winds and began pushing its way north, knocking out power to more than 1.4 million people across the state and collapsing a construction crane over the Miami skyline.
The storm, which killed at least three people, is expected to make a slow, ruinous march up Florida’s west coast, straight towards the heavily populated Tampa-St Petersburg area by today.
The White House said President Donald Trump was briefed about the path of Hurricane Irma and preparations were made to respond to the storm by the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).
Mr Trump, who met his Cabinet at Camp David this weekend, also spoke to the governors of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. All four states could be affected by the storm.
Streets emptied across the bottom half of the Florida peninsula, and some 127,000 people huddled in shelters. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses in south Florida were without power from the hurricane, the state’s largest utility said, and repairs to its system will take weeks, threatening to leave millions in the dark.
“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Governor Rick Scott said on Fox News Sunday.
Flooding, roof damage and floating appliances and furniture were reported in the low-lying Florida Keys — thin chain of low-lying islands off the tip of southern Florida — but with the storm still hitting around midday, the full extent of Irma’s wrath was not clear.
Irma, which hammered Cuba’s northern coast a day earlier, was a Category 4 hurricane. The centre of the storm made landfall at the lower Florida Keys about 9am local time, the National Hurricane Center said. It also forecast potentially deadly storm surges of up to 4.6m along some parts of the coast.
Emergency responders in the Florida Keys said they pulled a man’s body from his pickup truck, which had crashed into a tree in high winds.
A deputy sheriff, died in a head-on collision in Hardee County, east of Sarasota, Sheriff Arnold Lanier told AFP. The other driver, a corrections officer on his way to work in a private vehicle, was also killed, Mr Lanier said.
More than six million Floridians, or about a third of the state’s population, had been ordered to evacuate their homes ahead of the storm, in one of the largest emergency evacuations in US history. However, an untold number of residents had refused to leave.
Mr John Huston, who was riding out the storm at his Key Largo home, was already seeing flooding in his yard before the arrival of high tide.
“Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” he said by text message. “Shingles are coming off.”
In downtown Miami, one of two dozen construction cranes looming over the skyline collapsed atop a high-rise in Irma’s winds. There was no immediate word on any damage or injuries. City officials said it would have taken about two weeks to have moved the cranes out of harm’s way.
Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 300kmh 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 32°C, regained strength.
The Tampa-St Petersburg area, with a population of about 3 million, has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. The wind was already picking up in St Petersburg, some 643km north of the Keys, and people began bracing for the onslaught.
“I’ve been here with other storms, other hurricanes. But this one scares me,” Ms Sally Carlson said she snapped photos of the waves crashing against boats. “Let’s just say a prayer (and) hope we make it through.”
The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.