Hurricane Irma made it to Naples Sunday, bringing 160 mph gusts of wind and a dangerous 15-foot storm surge, though it had become a weaker Category 2 storm.
At the 5 p.m. update, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said the storm would likely weaken further as it starts its northern journey inland with an even lower sustained wind speed of 110 mph and a faster clip than before, 14 mph. Next stop: Tampa.
As Irma moves inland and away from the warm waters that strengthen hurricanes, forecasters said the storm should lessen in intensity, but the winds will maintain hurricane strength at least until Monday morning.
The weaker storm is no less dangerous, experts said. Irma left three confirmed tornadoes in its wake, the National Weather Service said, as well as a trail of wreckage in South Florida and the Florida Keys. Two construction cranes in downtown Miami snapped in the powerful winds, and the roof of an Edgewater home was blown off.
Even before Hurricane Irma landed in Naples, the National Hurricane Center — expecting more than a dozen inches of rain and a storm surge as high as 15 feet — issued a flash flood warning.
Meteorologist Tony Reynes said, "If you don't immediately evacuate, you can lose your life."
Storm surge continues to be a major threat. Low-lying Collier County has consistently been the focus of warnings for “life-threatening” storm surges. The five feet of storm surge in Miami Beach and downtown Miami turned streets into rivers and made some areas impassable by car. Naples was predicted to see two to three times that amount.
The storm made its second landfall — the first was in the Florida Keys — at Marco Island at 3:30 p.m. Sunday. It moved to Naples across the bay about an hour later as a powerful Category 3 storm, stacking water into a surge that meteorologists fear could reach 15 feet.
First responders and NHC staff urged anyone who hadn't heeded the evacuation warnings to seek higher ground.
The storm blew in with such intensity that observers saw the water at the Naples pier rise by four feet in 30 minutes.
Naples airport reported sustained winds of 112 mph with gusts as high as 135.
Mark DeMaria, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, said late Sunday afternoon that the weather should gradually improve in Miami-Dade as the storm cleared out. But some sustained winds at tropical-storm force will remain for a few more hours.
And Tampa, north of Naples and Irma's next main target, can still expect a five-to-eight foot storm surge accompanied by what is likely to be a Category 1 hurricane by then.
"We're gradually seeing winds come down," said DeMaria. "But in the last hour, we still see sustained tropical winds. It's not really time to go outside yet."