Hurricane Irma converted streets into rivers, hammered Caribbean islands and the Florida Keys with deadly fury, and left about 3 million people without power and millions temporarily displaced.
But even with flood waters still flowing -- and before Tampa’s defenses were tested -- some residents in the southern part of the state were counting themselves fortunate that the most dire predictions evaporated. They emerged tentatively Sunday night, despite curfews and downed trees, to walk pets and take in storm-freshened air.
“This had the potential to be catastrophic,” said Gladys Ibarra, 51, who works in finance at a shipping company, as she wandered an inland stretch of Coral Gables, where tree limbs littered the ground, but buildings looked little damaged. “We were very scared, and we were very lucky.”
The cyclone made landfall in the Keys about 9 a.m. Sunday as a Category 4 storm with winds hitting 130 miles per hour, ravaging the delicate string of islands and then battering Miami before beginning its march up the coast as its fury began to dissipate. Even weakened, it posed a serious threat to Tampa, whose shallow bay, flat topography and lack of physical protection made it vulnerable.
As of 10 p.m., Irma had top winds of 105 miles per hour and was bearing down on Tampa, the National Hurricane Center said. Tampa Bay could still get a storm surge as high as eight feet, the agency said. Rescue personnel in the city were sheltering Sunday night until the winds died down.
“Even if it drops to 105, those gusts can be terribly, terribly life threatening,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “When the high tide meets the surge, we’re going to have flooding issues.”
“Let’s wait for the sun to come up in the morning,” he said, “and then we’ll set about the business of cleaning up the city.”
But even before the full damage could be tallied, Irma’s impact was falling short of predictions by a number of measures. On Friday, NextEra Energy Inc.’s Florida Power & Light utility was warning that 4.1 million of its customers could lose power, almost half of the state’s population. As of 8 p.m. New York time Sunday, about 3 million were down. Duke Energy Inc. estimated that Irma could knock out service to more than 1 million customers; 233,000 were without power.
The estimated financial impact shrank as well. Chuck Watson, an Enki Research disaster modeler in Savannah, Georgia, had predicted total damages as high as $200 billion. However, the hurricane dwindled to a Category 2 before reaching the Tampa Bay area. That could keep damages under $49 billion, with insured losses at about $19 billion, sparing insurance companies, Watson said.
By comparison, total losses from Hurricane Katrina reached $160 billion in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005.
“There may yet be a Florida insurance market on Tuesday,” Watson said.
The dramatic drop in Irma’s estimated cost, though, didn’t mean the region would be spared a savage human toll. It has already laid waste to the small island of Barbuda, killed at least 25 people and left thousands homeless across the Caribbean. Early reports suggested that the low-lying Keys were devastated, with photos showing cars submerged almost to their roofs.
Read more: How Science Links Climate Change to Irma’s Wallop: QuickTake Q&A
The storm’s impact rippled across the nation and beyond. In Atlanta, shoppers besieged grocery stores, stripping shelves of water, bread and milk. South Carolina opened shelters to accommodate an expected flood of refugees; in Florida, 6.5 million residents had evacuated.
Military ships and aircraft delivered thousands of tarps, 40 pallets of food, medical supplies and water to the Virgin Islands, while evacuating more than 70 patients, according to a news release from the U.S. Northern Command. Ships were in position to begin search and rescue work when weather permits.
The Defense Logistics Agency sent about 5,000 gallons of water to Haiti; 100,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel to Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and millions of meals to staging areas on bases in Alabama and North Carolina.
In Washington, the House of Representatives said lawmakers shouldn’t expect planned votes Monday because of absences caused by the storm, according to an announcement by the office of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. And President Donald Trump described the hurricane as “a storm of enormous destructive power.”
Miami was the first major city to feel it. At least two construction cranes collapsed under the force of ferocious winds, leaving them teetering on the sides of buildings under construction. Another snapped in Fort Lauderdale, according to Broward County officials.
The hurricane’s surge flooded the Brickell Avenue financial district, turning the street into a fast-moving river. Winds ripped the roof off a building north of the neighborhood, with video showing a huge swath of roof peeling away and smashing onto structures nearby in a cloud of debris.
The storm gave rise to chaos beyond its mere meteorology.
Fort Lauderdale police reported nine arrests in the looting of a pawn shop, and Palm Beach County authorities arrested 45 people for violating its curfew, according to a news release. In Hardee County, an inland area southeast of Tampa, a sheriff’s deputy and a corrections officer were killed in a crash in an evacuation zone. The Miami Herald reported the two were driving in separate vehicles Sunday morning when they collided head on.
After the storm passed over Miami, the city began to revive and take stock Sunday night.
Along Calle Ocho, the cultural center of Cuban-American life in Florida, almost everything was dark, and trees and power lines were down. At Versailles restaurant, the sign was missing and the windows were covered with sheet-metal hurricane shutters.
On Brickell Avenue, water had receded, though a temporary lake still covered part of the street. Lights were on in front of many buildings and street lights were working.
Ardy Montazer, 29, who was riding his scooter around the area, rode out the storm in his 35th floor condo. He said he spent a lot of the day on his balcony in a hammock measuring the wind. “But then the balcony started shaking so I thought I should go inside,” he said.
Even with the city wet and shambolic, and despite the looming wreckage of the cranes, residents said they felt a sense of relief.
“We definitely missed the worst of it,” said Will Beckham, a 30-year-old insurance agent who lives in Brickell.
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