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Danger lingers in Florida as Irma moves into Georgia

12 September 2017 1:16 AM
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As a mighty hurricane, Irma inspired fear. As a tropical storm, it is spreading soggy distress — and continuing peril — across a growing swath of the American Southeast.

In what could be a long and messy afterlife, it will tax the patience of millions.

On Monday, a day after visiting lashing rains, surging tides and terrifying winds on nearly every corner of Florida, Irma unleashed flash flooding in three states and left a sweaty, disruptive legacy: no power for about 7 million people.

Confronting a panorama of destruction stretching from coast to coast, with rescue efforts still in progress and a massive cleanup only beginning to gather pace, Florida and federal officials opted for frankness: It might take weeks for electricity to be fully restored.

The storm’s direct death toll, mercifully, was not commensurate with Irma’s wrath. Authorities in Georgia on Monday reported three storm-related deaths, without providing details, and one person died in South Carolina. An electrocution was reported in central Florida — a grim hazard in flooding’s aftermath. Irma is being blamed for 34 deaths in the Caribbean before it hit Florida, according to the Associated Press.

With power cut for about 6.5 million Floridians and hundreds of thousands of others in Georgia and South Carolina, restoring electricity was an urgent priority, but authorities warned that the fixes wouldn’t happen overnight.

“I would caution people to be very patient here,” Tom Bossert, the White House homeland security advisor, said at a briefing in Washington, D.C. “We could have power down in homes for the coming weeks.”

In recorded history, the U.S. mainland had never before suffered two Category 4 hurricanes in the span of a year, never mind a little over two weeks. Coming on the heels of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas, Irma was expected to be one of the country’s most expensive weather disasters.

But on Monday, major insurers were revising estimates downward, though they were still expected to run in the tens of billions of dollars.

Still, as the storm left Florida behind, the danger lingered: Storm surges jeopardized cities along the state’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and the National Hurricane Center said Irma was still spinning off 60-mph winds as it moved into Georgia on Monday afternoon.

In Jacksonville, Fla., water poured rapidly into downtown streets, with the St. Johns River hitting flood levels not seen in decades.

Also read: At least 25 dead after Hurricane Maria hits Caribbean

“Get out NOW,” the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office tweeted in a warning to people in evacuation zones. It advised those who needed help escaping flooded homes to visibly display something white — a shirt or a pillowcase.

Downtown Charleston, S.C., too was hit by heavy storm flooding, and communities in coastal Georgia were swamped as well.

With Irma’s reach spreading over hundreds of miles, Alabama battened down; schools and businesses closed across the state. In Georgia, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was still open Monday, but thousands of flights have been canceled.

Although the storm's raging winds and punishing rains lent it an apocalyptic feel as it unfolded in Florida over the weekend, damage initially appeared significant and widespread, but short of catastrophic.

That was true even in the Florida Keys, where Irma made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane. Gov. Rick Scott, who flew in with the Coast Guard plane, said he saw “devastation” — roofs ripped away, boats tossed ashore, mobile homes overturned — but “it’s not as bad as we thought.”

Still he cautioned, “It’s going to be a long road; there’s a lot of damage.”

Also read: 'Mind-boggling destruction' as hurricane hits

Eleventh-hour shifts in Irma’s trajectory undoubtedly saved both lives and property. Last week, while the storm was roaring through the Caribbean, where it devastated a chain of small islands, one projected track had it aiming straight for Miami, Florida’s biggest city. But it veered westward instead.

On Sunday, still at hurricane strength, Irma appeared set for a direct strike on the highly built-up Gulf Coast region of Tampa-St. Petersburg, but it tacked east-northeast instead, losing strength as it moved over land.

Experts say the number of deaths and amount of damage that can be expected from a storm of that strength have been reduced in recent years by advances in forecasting, which enable authorities to order people out of harm’s way, and stricter building standards that help fortify the sorts of large public venues where people seek shelter — even if smaller wooden structures remain vulnerable.

While the seas to Florida’s west bent to Irma’s will, receding and then rising, the National Hurricane Center also warned of “significant river flooding” for the next five days along the storm track. Gov. Scott called that flood threat the storm’s most dangerous aftermath.

On Monday, just outside Orlando, hundreds of homes were ordered emptied as floodwaters rose, and firefighters staged boat rescues for some. Another classic Florida hazard struck nearby: A 60-foot sinkhole abruptly gaped at the base of an apartment building, which was hastily evacuated. No injuries were reported.

Not all damage has yet been chronicled. Except for rescuers and suppliers, the Florida Keys were mainly unreachable by the single 42-bridge highway linking them, although a flotilla of boats was making its way.

The Navy said it was sending in four vessels, including the aircraft carrier Lincoln, to provide emergency services in the Keys.

Coast Guard and naval helicopters buzzed over the low-lying island chain, making aerial assessments. Units of the Florida National Guard and other personnel were deployed for the cleanup, bringing bulldozers and other heavy equipment with them.

In Florida City, the gateway to the Keys, frustration mounted among those who wanted to go back home after obeying orders to get out.

“I’m sorry I ever agreed to evacuate,” said Warren Stincer, a boat captain and carpenter from Key Largo. “My home is just 20 minutes down the road, and I know the road is clear.”

Joe Sanchez, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said the road would remain closed to all but emergency crews until authorities determined it was safe.

President Trump expressed resolve in the face of the twin hurricanes, even if his administration is skeptical of climate changes that scientists say are contributing to increasingly violent weather.

Also read: Monster Hurricane Maria is back to Category 5 and barreling towards the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

Source: latimes.com

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