- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 10, 2017

Winds reaching 130 miles per hour and torrential downpours wreaked havoc in Florida as Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sunday, flooding city streets in downtown Miami, tearing down construction cranes and knocking out power to more than 3 million people in the path of the storm.

By Monday morning, the monster hurricane that stretched more than 300 miles had weakened into a tropical storm, hitting the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

Officials said the storm’s route, which was originally forecast to hit Florida’s Atlantic coast, is a “worst-case scenario” that threatens to cause catastrophic damage up and down the Sunshine State.

“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Irma initially struck as a Category 4 hurricane but by the evening was downgraded to Category 2, though its winds still packed a formidable punch at about 105 mph. By Monday morning, it weakened to a tropical storm.

There were no reports of fatalities in Florida, even in the low-lying Keys, as of Sunday evening, though local officials there said they will start searching house to house through the string of barrier islands Monday morning.

A C-130 cargo plane will arrive at the Key West International Airport, and Monroe County officials are “prepared for the worst,” county Administrator Roman Gastesi told The Associated Press.

The storm came ashore just 16 days after Hurricane Harvey rocked Houston and the rest of southeast Texas, marking the first time two Category 4 Atlantic hurricanes have made landfall in the continental U.S. in the same year.

Local and national leaders are sounding the alarm for the relief effort to come, hoping to replicate the massive outpouring of support witnessed on the other side of the Gulf in response to Harvey.

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the storm’s trajectory along Florida’s west coast was a “worst-case scenario.”

“The power is going to be out for a long time, it’s going to be tough for us to get in to perform search and rescue in South Florida, we have to wait until all of the elements pass through,” Mr. Long said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is a complex event. But as far as positioning goes, we’ve done pretty much all we can.

“Once this system passes through, it’s going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said he was “deeply concerned” about the unexpected path that Irma took because the west coast of Florida was less prepared than the east. Because of geography, the Tampa Bay area had not taken major damage from a hurricane in almost a century.

“People are concerned about the Tampa Bay region because they have not gotten the warnings, really only started to be amplified Friday night for them,” Mr. Rubio said Sunday on the CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

With the storm enveloping the entire peninsula, Mr. Rubio said, there was nowhere for people who found themselves in the path of the storm to go.

“The whole state is impacted,” he said. “A lot of the relief efforts are being directed from places that now themselves are in, in the path of, of the storm. And we have a lot of people, for example, that left South Florida, that drove to Orlando or Tampa, who are now figuring out maybe I need to go back to Miami or something or Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach. This is no time to be on the road.”

But even on the state’s east coast, Irma was still powerful enough to topple three construction cranes — two in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale — though none of the collapses appeared to injure anyone.

Almost 7 million people were told to evacuate. About a half-million of them do not reside in Florida.

Forecasters said the storm could reach Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and elsewhere. For the first time ever, a tropical storm warning was issued in Atlanta, which sits more than 250 miles from the ocean.

President Trump called governors in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee on Sunday in preparation for the federal response to the disaster, the White House said.

“We are doing everything we can to help with disaster preparations and, when the time comes, we will restore, recover and rebuild — together, as Americans,” Mr. Trump said in his weekly address. “In times such as these, we see the strength and the resolve of the American spirit — and we see the kindness and courage of our people.”

Mr. Scott activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 10,000 guardsmen from other states were also deployed.

The Keys were nearly deserted Sunday morning when Irma made landfall, bringing a 10-foot surge to an area where a few stragglers remained out of pride.

“Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” Key Largo resident John Huston told The Associated Press by text message. “Shingles are coming off.”

Irma was the largest hurricane ever recorded while it was still in the open Atlantic, with winds peaking at 185 miles per hour. It’s the seventh-largest storm on record to hit the United States and could prove one of the most devastating.

In the low-lying Keys, Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark said the ocean waters were filled with navigation hazards, including sunken boats and loose vessels. But the full extent of Irma’s wrath there was not clear.

Earlier in the week, Irma tore through parts of the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Cuba, killing at least 24 people and leaving officials scrambling Sunday to bring aid to shattered islands.

Even though Irma struck only a glancing blow at Cuba on Saturday and Sunday, the storm was big enough and powerful enough to produce 20-foot waves in Havana, and its storm surge topped the capital’s iconic Malecon sea wall.

Elsewhere on the island, Irma wreaked havoc on sugar and banana fields in the central part of the island and swamped some of the exclusive resorts and hotels that are key to the tourism industry.

The communist government, which runs an efficient disaster evacuation program, did not immediately release a fatality count.

On the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, where Irma hit when it was a Category 5 monster, green hills were reduced to piles of brown debris, with the majority of the island’s homes likely destroyed as communications began to be restored.

“Unfortunately, there are more victims to mourn,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Sunday as more bodies washed up on the island.

Relief efforts on St. Martin, put off as Hurricane Jose passed through, were expected to amp up Monday as authorities opened the island’s Marigot port and scheduled a boat to dock with a 5-ton crane for unloading aid container ships.

U.S. officials said American citizens on St. Martin wishing for an evacuation flight should arrive at the airport by noon Monday, when takeoffs can begin.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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