Inescapable Irma, the hurricane that for a week tormented the entirety of the Florida peninsula unlike any storm that came before it, will finally find its way out of the state Monday.
She will leave behind destruction from Key West to probably Tallahassee. And yet the storm will also be remembered for what it wasn’t: In the end, Irma was not the feared Category 5 catastrophe she could have been, though the extent of her damage is still unknown. The dual-coast storm has already been blamed for five deaths.
Overnight, the Category 2 storm pushed into western Florida further south than expected, sparing vulnerable Tampa Bay from the worst of the surging Gulf of Mexico waters. By 2 a.m., it was a Category 1 inland storm moving northeast toward Orlando from Tampa. By 5 a.m., it was about to be downgraded to a tropical storm.
Naples, close to where Category 3 Irma had made its Marco Island landfall Sunday afternoon, appeared to suffer from rising waters and piercing winds. Aerial videos showed splintered roofs and flooded streets, though the storm surge was not as high as initially forecast.
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“We may have been a little bit lucky that it went on the west,” President Donald Trump predicted Saturday, when he signed a major federal disaster declaration for Florida. “It may not have been quite as destructive.”
Here’s why Irma, ferocious as she was, might have cut the Florida mainland a bit of a break: The storm weakened over Cuba on Saturday, wobbled east so its Category 4 eye missed Key West on Sunday, then stayed inland of Naples to skirt Tampa on Monday.
But for a less-bad scenario, it was still pretty bad — especially for the Florida Keys, where the extent of Irma’s wrath remained frustratingly unclear into Sunday night. The hurricane came ashore at Cudjoe Key on Sunday morning.
“We don’t have a comprehensive insight into what the damage is,” Florida Director of Emergency Management Bryan Koon said late Sunday. “We will work on those at first light. I don’t have any numbers on fatalities at this point.”
On Monday, Monroe County plans home-to-home searches looking for survivors. Help will be flown in since bridges must be inspected. Until then, no one is allowed into the Keys.
For South Florida, Monday will serve as a jolting reminder that even a hurricane that doesn’t hit you, hurts you.
Major coastal streets turned into shallow rivers with cresting waves. Most of North Bay Village was under water. Nearly 90 percent of Florida Power & Light’s 1.1 million Miami-Dade customers lost power. Three construction cranes broke. Trees fell on I-95. A Hialeah sewage pump failed. Miami Beach refused to allow anyone back in until Tuesday.
One woman gave birth at home. Another almost did aboard a fire truck. Miami International Airport sustained “significant water damage” and, like Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, remained closed. School was suspended until further notice. The entire region was placed under curfew. Miami-Dade Police said it arrested 28 looters.
All for what amounted to a strong tropical storm.
The highest gust recorded in Miami-Dade on Sunday measured 99 mph, according to Ed Rappaport, the acting director of the National Hurricane Center.
By Sunday night, surge waters were expected to have receded — and they had, at least on Brickell Avenue, according to a Miami Police Department video. Cops and teams of electrical workers and cleanup crews fanned out across the region to assess damages. They cleared some roads of debris and, mercifully, started restoring power.
But much work lies ahead over the next sticky September days.
“Our message to everybody is, ‘Look, stay indoors, or stay out of those areas until you need to go there,’” said Pete Gomez, Miami’s assistant fire chief. “At the same time, we’re also going to have on-duty units canvassing areas and doing welfare checks, making sure people are OK. We’re going to try and concentrate on the ALFs — there’s like 115 in the city. In the meantime we still have to answer calls. That’s not going to stop.”
“Yeah,” he conceded, “we’ve got our hands full.”
Miami Herald staffers Nancy Ancrum, Douglas Hanks, Nicholas Nehamas, Charles Rabin, Rene Rodriguez, Carol Rosenberg, David Smiley and Dave Wilson contributed to this report, as did Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas.