Boston: Hurricane Irma smashed into Florida as a powerful Category 4 storm, driving a wall of water and violent winds ashore and marking the first time since 1964 the US was hit by back-to-back major hurricanes.
The eye of the storm moved over the lower Florida Keys at about 9 am on Sunday with top winds of 130 miles (209 kilometers) an hour, the US National Hurricane Centre said. After Irma rakes Florida’s west coast, it may keep moving north across Georgia and Alabama.
Just over two weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck the heart of US energy production in Texas, Irma is threatening another region with almost $200 billion worth of damages. Irma’s wrath has already roiled markets, sending insurance stocks plunging and orange juice futures surging. At least 1.3 million homes and businesses in Florida had lost power by 9:30 am Sunday, a Bloomberg tally of utility reports shows.
The storm’s path forced the largest evacuation in Miami-Dade County history and sent millions of Floridians fleeing. It’s the first major hurricane to hit Florida since Wilma in 2005 and has already laid waste to the small island of Barbuda, killed at least 25 people and left thousands homeless across the Caribbean.
The storm’s track along Florida’s west coast “is almost, if not, a worst-case scenario for Tampa Bay," said Rob Miller, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “It shoves all the water into Tampa Bay and then shoves it right into downtown."
Just before Irma’s landfall, Enki Research disaster modeller Chuck Watson said the storm’s trek up Florida’s coast could cost $192 billion and threatens $2 trillion of property. Total losses from Katrina reached $160 billion in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005.
Irma is “easily on track to be the new No. 1 storm unless intensity collapses," Watson said.
President Donald Trump described the hurricane as “a storm of enormous destructive power" while discussing preparations with his Cabinet.
Florida’s Tampa area may be hit with a worse storm surge because the continental shelf there is relatively shallow for as much as 90 miles offshore, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The last major hurricane to hit Tampa was in 1921, Masters said.
While Irma’s northern turn has raised the threat to Florida’s west coast, it potentially spares Miami a direct hit. The system was about 25 miles northeast of Key West, according to a 10 am update, and moving north-northwest at 8 miles an hour.
The storm could make a second landfall in Florida near Marco Island or Sarasota late Sunday and a third near Apalachicola in the state’s Panhandle region on Monday. By then, Irma may have weakened because of wind shear.
In Miami-Dade, residents woke to the reality that they’d probably dodge the most dangerous part of the storm as its track shifted west. From hotels and shelters, smokers and dog-walkers ignored advice that the worst was yet to come and emerged from their bunkers. Traffic accidents were also reported overnight as some in the county tried to leave shelters and return home. Bloomberg
Marvin G. Perez, Erik Wasson, Laura Litvan, Jonathan Levin, Ezra Fieser, Jim Polson and Mark Chediak contributed to this story.