In a calamitous northward sweep from the Everglades to the Florida Panhandle, a weakening but still monstrously powerful Hurricane Irma battered a string of cities on the state’s palm-fringed west coast Sunday before advancing toward Georgia and the Carolinas.
Irma, downgraded Sunday afternoon to a Category 2 storm and expected to lose its hurricane status Monday, yielded watery misery and hours of scouring winds even in areas that avoided a direct hit, like Miami, and flattened buildings in the Florida Keys, where it first made landfall.
So broad and punishing was the storm’s reach that no corner of Florida, the country’s fourth most-populous state, was unaffected.
And Irma was an avatar of night terrors: As darkness fell, the storm was bearing down on the populous Tampa Bay region, rendered especially vulnerable to deadly storm surges by the bay’s funnel shape.
There were at least four deaths. A man in the Florida Keys drove his car into a light pole, and a woman driving on a toll road in central Florida ran into a rail. In a rural area southeast of Tampa, two law-enforcement officers died after their vehicles crashed head-on. None of the incidents was linked conclusively to the storm.
As the storm moved over land, losing punch but gaining speed, a slight tack to the northeast imperiled the theme-park destination of Orlando, and the center of the state saw repeated Irma-spawned tornadoes.
With more than 3 million homes and businesses without power and a vast reckoning of the destruction still at hand, President Trump moved to free up funds for a huge rebuilding effort.
“Right now we’re worried about lives, not cost,” he told reporters as he returned to the White House from a weekend at the presidential retreat of Camp David.
Sunday’s dizzying sequence of stormy weather saw dual landfalls by the hurricane over a span of little more than six hours. After striking the Keys in midmorning, the eye of the storm moved over Marco Island, south of Naples. And soon after came the floodwaters, with water levels in Naples increasing 7 feet in just 90 minutes.
As the storm’s trajectory took it north, water was sucked from part of Tampa Bay, exposing a muddy expanse that would normally be underwater — a frightening portent of flooding to come when that water, and more, comes rushing back.
“MOVE AWAY FROM THE WATER!” appealed the National Hurricane Center after photos on social media showed people and dogs frolicking on the bay’s exposed sand.
The cities bracketing Tampa Bay — Tampa and St. Petersburg, with a population of some 3 million people between them — were forecast to be clobbered later Sunday by sustained hurricane-force winds. A direct hit on the area would be the first in nearly a century.
“We are about to get punched in the face by this storm,” declared Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn declared.
The storm’s passage by no means marks the end of the danger. "Once this system passes through, it's going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives," William B. “Brock” Long, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said on "Fox News Sunday."
With the storm on a havoc-filled trajectory, much of Florida was a jumbled tableau of overflowing shelters, boarded-up buildings and deserted streets in normally bustling urban centers. Palm trees blew sideways, with fronds snapping under the assault; tree branches flew like missiles.
In Pinellas County, which encompasses St. Petersburg, officials announced a curfew, and sheriff’s deputies hurried to relocate 1,000 inmates from the Pinellas County Jail.
An overnight curfew was also announced in Miami, where almost horizontal sheets of rain whipped through downtown all day long, and the wind seemed to come simultaneously from all directions. Whitecaps were visible on Brickell Avenue, a main north-south waterfront artery, and other major streets flooded as well.
The wind weaponized debris and even coconuts from palm trees, and powerful gusts threatened some two dozen construction cranes dotting Miami. At least two of them collapsed in Sunday’s winds.
By nighttime in Miami, the winds, while still fierce, had diminished to the point where it was possible to stand outside without tumbling over, and the rain had given way to clearing skies. A few people ventured outside, some walking their cooped-up dogs.
For those sheltering in hotels, board games and boredom – a contrast to the angry panorama outside – carried the day. “It’s fine; at least it’s safer than the house,” said Chris McShane, who was staying at a Homewood Suites in the Brickell area in downtown Miami with his wife, Jennifer, and their children Ashley, 1 and Riley, 2, after the family fled their home in the city’s north.
Amid the storm’s ravages came small points of light. A woman in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood went into labor and emergency responders were unable to reach her, so doctors coached her through the birth by phone, the city of Miami reported on Twitter. Sunday morning, mother and baby — a girl — were safely transported to Jackson Hospital by fire crews, the city reported.
In Florida alone, more than 6.5 million people were told to flee in advance of the storm, leading to days of jam-packed highways and frantic searches for gasoline amid one of the nation’s largest emergency evacuations ever. More than half a million others were ordered to evacuate in Georgia.
In downtown Fort Myers, on Florida’s southwest coast, the hurricane’s leading edge was so strong that it was hard to walk a block. Ominously, the Caloosahatchee River’s level dropped sharply, its lowered tide likely heralding a storm surge.
Some seemed ill-equipped to face an epic weather event, armed with little more than bravado.
“I got rum, cheese, tortillas,” announced Michael Gandy, a sunburned 77-year-old, who was keeping an eye on his boat from a marina-side apartment complex in Fort Myers.
People who had left everything they owned behind could only worry and wait as the wind and water reached a crescendo. “I’m worried I won’t have a house to go back to,” said Diana Frana, who fled her canal-side home in Cape Coral, on Fort Myers’ outskirts.