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Storm surge swamps low-lying areas as high winds cut power to millions and damage buildings across the Sunshine State.
After days of uncertainty of where Hurricane Irma would make its much anticipated northward turn into Florida, the center of the storm moved through the Florida Keys and into the state’s southwest coast on Sunday as slightly weakened but still strong Category 4 hurricane.
Some parts of the Florida Keys saw significant storm surge, with the National Weather Service reporting an inundation of 10 feet at Cudjoe Key, near Key West, where the eye made its first landfall in the state as a Category 4 storm.
The hurricane’s eye came ashore a second time at Marco Island, near Naples in Collier County, where wind gusts of 130 mph were recorded, according to The Washington Post. Irma continued to weaken as it moved northward through the Fort Myers, Sarasota and Tampa Bay areas and inundated low-lying areas on barrier islands and elsewhere along the coast, bays and inlets with storm surge.
As the Tampa Bay Times reported Sunday evening, there were 28,000 people in 45 shelters in Hillsborough County, which includes the city of Tampa. Many of those shelters were at capacity. In Pinellas County, which includes the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, 20,000 people were hunkered down in 17 shelters.
Storm surge levels in the Tampa Bay area were forecasted to rise as high as 8 feet in some areas.
But the storm has had far-reaching impacts beyond Florida’s west coast, including inland flooding, isolated tornadoes and widespread power outages due to downed trees and wind-whipped debris, prompting state and local emergency managers, first responders and public officials to urge those who weren’t able to flee northward to shelter in place for conditions to improve.
As the storm advanced on the state, local officials also had to warn Floridians not to shoot guns into the hurricane’s winds, an action some were promoting on social media.
Florida Power & Light reported that more than 2 million of its customers were without power and warned that restoring service could take weeks in some places.
Around 270,000 customers in Central Florida were also without power as of Sunday night, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Those numbers were expected to increase as Irma moves north up the Florida peninsula and into Georgia.
“Plan for extended and prolonged outages,” Florida Power & Light spokesperson Rob Gould said at a Sunday news conference, according to the Sun Sentinel. “We expect, given the fact the storm has slowed down, many of our customers will be out for a day or longer, given that, much like emergency responders, our crews cannot get out and work. It’s just too dangerous.”
Irma’s more western track spared the Miami area a direct hit—as had been previously feared—but due to the hurricane’s size, the metropolitan area saw flooding from storm surge in low-lying areas, including parts of downtown.
Winds in Miami area were, however, strong enough to snap three high-rise construction cranes, the Miami Herald reported.
While it will take many months to get a more precise damage estimate, one Savannah, Georgia-based disaster modeler with Enki Research told Bloomberg News that there could be $135 billion in damages from the storm. With other economic losses, Irma’s price tag could come in around $200 billion.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.