Hurricane Irma: storm weakens to category 1 but millions left without power

Irma weakens as it moves up coast towards Tampa but officials warn of continued danger and full extent of damage may not be known for days

11 September 2017, 8:56am
Hurricane Irma headed for Florida Keys
Hurricane Irma headed for Florida Keys
On Sunday night, hurricane Irma began winding down as it headed north over Florida, where it made landfall twice, leaving millions of people in complete darkness.

The centre of the storm passed over Cudjoe Key at 9:10am ET, as was reported by the National Hurricane Centre and by 3:35pm, it made landfall again on Marco Islands, around 180 miles south of Tampa.

No casualties were confirmed however, the damage following a day of destructive winds and raging waters could not be assessed until later. By 2am on Monday, Irma had weakened to a category 1 storm, with winds of around 85mph as it moved further inland, about halfway up the Florida peninsula.

"The centre of the storm is actually moving inland, rather that staying out partially over water and moving right up and down the coast," said Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for the Weather Channel. “This is going to help the storm to weaken a little bit quicker”.

According to the National Hurricane Centre, the inland push would likely keep Irma's centre over land, where it should lose power by Monday over far north Florida.

The latest updates
  • Irma hit the lower Florida Keys with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph just after 7am ET on Sunday. It made landfall on Cudjoe Key at 9:10am.
  • It later weakened to a Category 2 after making landfall on Marco Island as a Category 3.
  • It passed the Tampa Bay area early Monday on its way to northern Florida overnight.
  • The Florida Keys could get 10 to 20 inches of rain, and the peninsula could get 8 to 15 inches. Tornado watches are in effect.
  • Tropical storm warnings are in effect hundreds of miles inland to north of Atlanta.

Irma was still spinning off a very large wind field, however, and as it slowly approached the Tampa Bay area of Tampa and St. Petersburg late Sunday, forecasters urged people not to let their guard down, claiming that around 16 inches of rain and tropical storm-force winds could go on well into Monday.

"In all areas this rainfall may cause life-threatening flash floods," the National Hurricane Centre said at 11pm ET.

All emergency services were suspended on Sunday night in St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County, and some were suspended in many other counties and municipalities, as winds made it too dangerous to be outside.

"Now is the time to urgently hide from the wind," the National Weather Service's Ruskin, Florida, office said shortly before midnight on Sunday.

Evacuees fled as far north as Tennessee.

Irma slammed into Naples late Sunday afternoon with maximum winds of 110 mph and a top wind gust of 142 mph, but Mayor Bill Barnett said he'd seen no evidence of injuries.

Recalling Hurricane Wilma, the powerful Category 3 storm that struck Florida in 2005, killing six people and causing $20 billion in damage, he described Irma as "horrendous."

"I thought Wilma was bad until Irma showed up," he said.

Tornado warnings were in effect across the state. A twister was reported at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, the National Weather Service said, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

More than 3.5 million Florida Power & Light customers were without power late Sunday, the utility said. Many streets in Miami were under water and three construction cranes collapsed in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Emilio Gonzalez, the Miami International Airport’s chief executive and director said that the airport had sustained significant water damage and will remain closed on Monday.  

Georgia authorities told 540,000 residents to leave the coast and South Carolina ordered nearly 45,000 people to evacuate as Irma was expected to arrive Monday.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded the state's emergency declaration to cover all 159 counties on Sunday and closed the state government at least through Tuesday.

Shortages of gasoline and bottled water were reported on Sunday night throughout metro Atlanta, where Irma's impact could be felt for months.

"Let's say there's a portion of Georgia or Florida that becomes uninhabitable for a long period of time. Those evacuees might decide to remain here, so we could have a significant bump in our population because those people don't have anywhere else to go," said Thomas Smith of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta.

That would add pressure to resources going into and out of the state, and it "could even affect housing and wages," Smith told NBC affiliate WXIA.

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster visited the state Emergency Operations Center in Columbia and warned residents that when Irma arrives, it could be "as damaging as Hurricane Matthew" — which killed 30 people and did about $1.8 billion of damage in North and South Carolina in October 2016.

"Nature is powerful, and if you've seen those photographs and films from down south, you realize how powerful," McMaster said. "Sometimes, we forget how powerful it is, but everybody remembers Matthew."

President Donald Trump, who declared a major disaster in the Florida on Sunday, monitored progress from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. Returning to the White House, he said the response to the crisis has "been going really well."

"The bad news is this is a monster," he told reporters on the South Lawn. "I hope there aren't too many people in the path. That's a bad path to be in."

Meanwhile, 24 people have been confirmed dead as a result of hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, after it ploughed through several islands, including the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Barbuda, where over a million people were left without electricity.