TAMPA, Florida – A weakened but still dangerous Hurricane Irma pushed inland Monday as it hammered Florida with winds and floodwaters that created hazards even for rescuers trying to help beleaguered residents.
Irma continued its slog through Florida, while its outer bands were blowing wind and rain into Georgia. With rough conditions persisting across Florida, many communities in the storm's wake feared what destruction would be revealed when daylight came.
Nearly 4.5 million homes and businesses across Florida lost power, and utility officials said it will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone. More than 100,000 were in the dark in Georgia.
In Polk County east of Tampa, winds knocked a utility pole and power lines onto a sheriff's cruiser late Sunday, illustrating the dangerous conditions for emergency personnel. A deputy and a paramedic, who had just escorted an elderly patient to safety, were trapped for two hours until a crew could free them. Both were unhurt.
And more than 120 homes were being evacuated early Monday in Orange County, just outside the city of Orlando, as floodwaters started to pour in. The fire department and the National Guard were going door-to-door and using boats to ferry families to safety, county officials said. A few miles away, 30 others had to be evacuated when a 60-foot sinkhole opened up under an apartment building. No injuries were reported in either case.
In Redington Shores west of Tampa, attorney Carl Roberts spent a sleepless night riding out Irma in his 17th floor beachfront condo. After losing power late Sunday, he made it through the worst of the storm shaken but unhurt.
"The hurricane winds lashed the shutters violently, throughout the night," he wrote in a text message, "making sleep impossible."
As morning broke, he couldn't open the electric shutters to see outside.
"It's so dark in here," he said.
Irma's center was about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Tampa early Monday, though in a much-weakened state. While it arrived in Florida a Category 4 hurricane, it was down to a Category 1 with winds of 75 mph (120 kph). The monster storm has toppled at least three constructions cranes — two over downtown Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale.
Continued weakening was forecast and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma was expected to become a tropical storm later Monday.
People in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area had feared a first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, but the storm weakened to a Category 2 as it approached that area.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the situation was not as bad as it could have been, but he warned residents that dangerous storm surge conditions were expected to continue Monday. He said there were a lot of downed power lines, along with other debris.
"What we feared the most was the surge," he said in an interview on MSNBC. "The surge is yet to be finished."
No deaths in Florida were immediately linked to the storm. In the Caribbean, at least 24 were people were killed during Irma's destructive trek across exclusive islands known as the vacation playground for the rich. In Cuba, the storm swamped Havana's iconic seawall, pushing water nearly a third of a mile (half a kilometer) inland.
In one of the largest U.S. evacuations, nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to seek shelter, including 6.4 million in Florida alone. More than 200,000 people waited in shelters across Florida.
In the coming days, Irma is expected to push into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and beyond. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, where many schools canceled classes.
Bryan Koon, Florida's emergency management director, said late Sunday that 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.
In the low-lying Keys, where a storm surge of over 10 feet (3 meters) was recorded, appliances and furniture were seen floating away, and Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark said the ocean waters were filled with navigation hazards, including sunken boats.
The county administrator, Roman Gastesi, said crews would begin house-to-house searches Monday morning to check on survivors.
Storm surge and tornadoes were two big concerns. A tide gauge in Naples reported a 7-foot (more than 2-meter) rise in water levels in just 90 minutes late Sunday. And an apparent tornado spun off by Irma destroyed six mobile homes in Palm Bay, midway up the Atlantic coast. Flooding was reported along Interstate 4, which cuts across Florida's midsection.
Curfews were imposed overnight in Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and much of the rest of South Florida, and some arrests of violators were reported. Miami Beach barred outsiders from the island.
About 30,000 people heeded orders to leave the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused, in part because, to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.
John Huston, who stayed in his Key Largo home, watched his yard flood even before the arrival of high tide.
"Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy," he said by text message. "Shingles are coming off."
Irma made landfall just after 9 a.m. Sunday at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) outside Key West. On Sunday afternoon, it rounded Florida's southwestern corner and hugged the coast closely as it pushed north.
Gretchen Blee, who moved with her husband to Naples from Long Island, New York, after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 heavily damaged their beach home, took cover in a hotel room as Irma raged.
"I said, 'Let's go and live the good life in paradise'," she said. "And here we are."
Irma once was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, a Category 5 with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph). For days, forecasters had warned Irma was taking dead aim at the Miami area and the rest of Florida's Atlantic coast. But then Irma made a westward shift and lost some of its punch while crossing Cuba's northern coast — just before a crucial turn into Florida's Gulf Coast.
Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Terry Spencer in Palm Beach County; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee; Terrance Harris and Claire Galofaro in Orlando; and Jason Dearen and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.
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