Powerful Tropical Storm Irma continued churning up Florida’s west coast Monday, on course to hit Alabama and Georgia – and the deadly storm leaves behind it a terrible legacy of carnage throughout much of the Florida Peninsula, seen in scores of ripped-off roofs, flooded streets and widespread power outages.
While the worst of Irma appears to have passed – at one point it unleashed wind gusts up to 142 mph and storm-surge flooding when it made landfall on Florida’s Marco Island on Sunday – the storm still poses numerous threats to residents throughout the Southeast, and the full impact of its devastation could take weeks to assess.
The center of the storm sat about 30 miles north-northeast of Cedar Key on Monday morning, moving at 15 to 20 mph. Forecasters downgraded Irma from a hurricane to a tropical storm Monday morning as it tracked toward the northwestern coast of the Florida Peninsula. It’s set to cross the eastern Florida Panhandle into southern Georgia on Monday afternoon and continue through southwestern Georgia and eastern Alabama later Monday night and into Tuesday.
Despite the continued downgrading of Irma, storm surges of 2 to 5 feet are expected along the Gulf Coast during high tides, and rain bands could drop more than 2 feet of water on already saturated ground.
While the Sunshine State won’t see too much actual sun Monday, state officials are looking on the bright side and say they’re pleased with the response from both local and federal officials.
"It's been very good, and there is cooperation between the federal level, the state and the locals," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Sunday on “Face the Nation,” adding that coordination between agencies has been “seamless.”
In one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history, nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to seek shelter elsewhere – including 6.4 million in Florida alone. There remained more than 160,000 people waiting in shelters across the state Monday.
The storm has been blamed for five deaths in Florida: one man was found dead in his home in the Florida Keys, while another was killed after losing control of his truck in tropical-storm strength winds. A sheriff’s deputy and a corrections officer were both killed in a two-car crash in Florida’s Hardee County and another person died in a car accident near Orlando that was deemed storm-related. Irma is also responsible for the death of 38 people throughout the Caribbean.
As Floridians begin to emerge from shelter and return to their storm-battered state, more than 6.5 million residents are left without power – roughly 65 percent of all customers in the state – and numerous towns and cities throughout Florida have been inundated by flood waters from the storm surge. Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted Monday morning the state was “aggressively” working to get search-and-rescue teams to help with the flooding in Jacksonville and that the USS Iwo Jima, the USS New York & the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln were being made available for rescue operations. Scott activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 10,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were being deployed to the state to help with the task.
Jacksonville was one of the hardest-hit cities in Florida, with wind gusts of 90 mph being reported at the city’s airport. The National Weather Service also issued a flash flood emergency for downtown Jacksonville amid concerns flood waters will rise another one to two feet.
President Trump approved a “major disaster” declaration on Sunday for the state, paving the way for a federal aid package similar to the one approved last week for Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, said late Sunday authorities had only scattered information about the storm’s toll.
“I’ve not heard of catastrophic damage. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means it hasn’t gotten to us yet,” Koon said.
As Irma tracks inland, southwestern Georgia and eastern Alabama are likely to take the brunt of the tropical storm’s wrath. While severely downgraded from the Category 5 hurricane it was when in the open Atlantic last week, Irma is still expected to spread heavy rain and bring potentially major flooding to the Southeast, dumping anywhere between 8 to 15 inches of rain.
Along Georgia’s coast, a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet is expected – especially around high tide at noon. The storm is also expected to bring sustained winds of more than 30 mph, with gusts at about 55 mph inland and 60 mph near the beach. There is also the threat of brief tornadoes that could spread from south to north sometime Monday.
Irma is expected to be downgraded to a tropical depression by Tuesday, just as it makes its way toward Alabama’s northern border with Tennessee. Still, observers say that power outages from the tropical storm-force winds could cause power outages as far north as Nashville and even into southern Ohio.