Irma battered her way up Florida’s Gulf Coast toward Tampa on Sunday, and was eventually downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane, but was expected to leave the state for Georgia on Monday as a tropical storm, leaving potentially dangerous storm surges in her wake.
At 2 a.m., storm surge warnings were still in effect for Tampa Bay, the Florida Keys and along portions of the state’s east coast. “Irma continues to have a large wind field, and exceptional hurricane-force wind gusts are still occurring well to the east of the center along the Florida east coast,” the National Hurricane Center advised.
The heavy rain threatened flash flooding and rapid rises on creeks, streams and rivers. Forecasters said significant river flooding was likely over the next five days in the Florida peninsula and southern Georgia.
The National Hurricane Center warned that 4 to 6 feet of inundation above ground level could be seen from Cape Sable to Captiva. The Florida Keys was still at risk, but of a lesser 3- to 5-foot surge, with predicted potential accumulated storm totals of 15 to 20 inches.
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Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key just after 9 a.m. Sunday. Gov. Rick Scott requested a major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump “to help bring important federal resources and aid to Florida” once Irma passes, he said. President Trump approved it.
The storm made its second landfall at Marco Island at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, before heading north to Naples across the bay. 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.
“Along with the high wind threat, another concern will be the potential for life-threatening storm surge inundation along and near the Southwest Florida Gulf Coast as the storm exits,” the weather service warned West Central Florida.
For a time, the mainland was cut off from the tourist mecca of Sanibel Island, known for its beaches and seashells that wash ashore from the Gulf of Mexico.
Lee County said state and local Department of Transportation inspectors would check out the causeways to the coastal islands early Monday — and warned that “due to Hurricane Irma’s significant wave action, the Sanibel Causeway may have been impacted.” Meantime Sanibel police were restricting traffic across the causeway.
Tornado watches disappeared for central and eastern portions of Florida. But the weather service reminded residents of Florida’s eastern coast that “life-threatening surf and rip current conditions” were likely byproducts of Irma.
In Miami-Dade, the highest gust Sunday was 99 miles per hour, said Ed Rappaport, acting director of the National Hurricane Center. Monday offered a mixed forecast for Miami-Dade County — gusts of winds of up to 50 miles per hour in the early morning hours, with a sunny upper 80s temperature day predicted and the possibility of showers and thunderstorms.
“Due to its recent more inland push, Irma’s center is now forecast to remain over Florida and then move over the southeastern United States for the duration of its existence,” the weather service said, predicting it would become a tropical depression over Mississippi by Tuesday afternoon and dissipate over adding that it should dissipate over Tennessee on Wednesday.