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Recovery effort underway in Florida as Irma downgraded to tropical storm

Irma left a path of destruction behind with wind damage and flooding across a wide swath of the state, including the Florida Keys and Miami. It continued to move up the west coast but its winds dropped to 70 mph, just below hurricane status.
11 Sep 2017 – 12:43 PM EDT
A man walks through flood waters in Naples, Florida. Crédito: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The sun came out in South Florida as a weakened but still dangerous Irma pushed inland Monday after it hammered Florida with winds that created hazards for rescuers and flooding that set a host of records.

Nearly 4.5 million homes and businesses across Florida lost power, and utility officials said it will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone.

Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph), made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane Sunday morning at Cudjoe Key, not far from Key West. It then rounded Florida's southwestern corner and hugged the coast closely as it pushed north.

Due to loss of communications it was still unclear how nad the damage was in the Florida Keys where rescue workers were searching for injured. The highay into the keys - US1 - was closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles.

A dusk to dawn curfew was in effect for most of South Florida as crews cleared roads.

Miami International Airport announced it would not reopen until Tuesday and authorities in several low-lying coasdtal areas, including Miami Beach and Key Biscayne said residents would not be allowed home until Tuesday at the earliest as roads are cleared of fallen trees.

Irma's center was about 105 miles (170 km) north of Tampa when forecasters announced it had weakened to a tropical storm. However, they warned its maximum sustained winds were 70 mph (110 kph), with higher gusts.

But people in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area had feared a first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, but the storm weakened to a Category 2 as it approached.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the situation was not as bad as it could have been, but warned residents that dangerous storm surge continued. He also described downed power lines and other debris.

"What we feared the most was the surge," he said Monday on MSNBC. "The surge is yet to be finished."

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Forecasters had warned Irma could cause up to 10 to 15 ft storm surge in parts of Florida's west coast, and 5 to 8 feet in Tampa Bay, one of the state's most low lying, flood-prone regions. Adding to that, it will also produce 10 to 15 inches of heavy rain, with isolated amounts of 20 inches are expected over the Florida Keys. "The surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves," the hurricane center said.

Irma is a massive storm dwarfing the state's largest storm in recent times, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which destroyed 127,000 homes in South Florida, killing 44 people. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles (110 km) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles (315 km).

It could have been much worse if Irma had strayed further east close to Miami, said Univision meteorologist Eduardo Rodriguez. "We escaped a catastrophe of apocalytic proportions," he said.

Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm over Florida, but it still had winds near hurricane force. Its outer bands were also blowing into Georgia, where the storm's center was expected to arrive later in the day. With rough conditions persisting across Florida, many communities in Irma's wake feared what destruction would be revealed as daylight allowed authorities to canvass neighborhoods.

Storm surge flooding in downtown Jacksonville exceeded a record set during a 1965 hurricane by at least 1 foot, according to the National Weather Service. A river gauge downtown in the Atlantic Coast city measured 3 feet above flood stage.

More than 120 homes were being evacuated early Monday in Orange County, just outside the city of Orlando, as floodwaters started to pour in. Firefighters and the National Guard were going door-to-door and using boats to ferry families to safety.

No deaths in Florida were immediately linked to the storm. In the Caribbean, at least 24 were people were killed during Irma's destructive trek across exclusive islands known as the vacation playground for the rich.

In one of the largest U.S. evacuations, nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to seek shelter, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.

More than 200,000 people waited in shelters across Florida.

At Germain Arena, where thousands sought refuge south of Fort Myers, people sat amid puddles on the concrete floor Monday morning. Officials said the arena remained in one piece, but wind-driven water leaked in at the height of the storm.

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"Irma went over and we were all like, 'Oh good, we survived.' And then all of a sudden some of the panels came off the roof, I guess, and we started getting water pouring down in different places," said 61-year-old Mary Fitzgerald. "It was was like, 'Oh my God, what is going to happen?'"

Bryan Koon, Florida's emergency management director, said late Sunday that authorities had only scattered information about damage, but feared worse reports could come in Monday.

About 30,000 people heeded orders to leave the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused.

John Huston, who stayed in his Key Largo home, watched his yard flood.

"Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy," he said by text message. "Shingles are coming off."

Next, Irma is expected to push into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state.

On Saturday Irma made landfall in northern Cuba with 160 mph winds, the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the island in more than 80 years.

The storm pounded Havana's famous Malecon seafront as well as the tourism resorts that stretch along the coast of Villa Clara province to Varadero, Cuba’s most famous beach. Hotels on Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, popular with Canadian and European tourists, sustained serious damage, Reuters reported.

In the nearby town of Caibarien, Cuban TV reported major flooding, downed tress as well as telephone and electricity poles. Power was cut to several towns region.

French territories badly hit

France's public insurance agency estimates that Hurricane Irma inflicted 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion) in damage on infrastructure in the French overseas islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.

It added that Hurricane Irma is "one of the biggest natural catastrophes to have occurred in France in 35 years."

In the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose is also Category 4 hurricane, but was no immediate threat to land after passing well north of Puerto Rico on Sunday.

Luis Velarde and Damia Bonmati reported from Naples, and David Adams is in Miami.