Miami Beach residents frolic hours before Irma arrives
Sorry, South Florida: When you wake up Sunday morning, Hurricane Irma will still not have passed, even though waiting for the dreaded storm has already felt interminable.
In fact, the worst for Miami-Dade and Broward counties — which mercifully won’t be nearly as bad as once feared — probably won’t start until mid-morning, and it will last for several hours.
The region won’t get sustained hurricane winds, only dangerous gusts. But tropical storm winds are expected to extend into Sunday night. That means getting out of the house and around town might not be safe until — gulp — Monday.
A tornado watch will be in effect until at least noon. Two tornadoes touched ground Saturday in Oakland Park and Wilton Manors, and tornado warnings were briefly in effect Saturday night and early Sunday morning in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
And then there’s the storm surge, the water washed ashore by the storm, an unpredictable hazard that local emergency managers fear could result in serious damage. Overnight from Saturday to Sunday, water lapped over bayfront roads along parts of Northeast Miami-Dade, including Miami Shores. After hours of unrelenting rain, some streets had already flooded in downtown Miami and Miami Beach. The National Weather Service’s Miami office issued a flood warning at 4:40 a.m.
“The thing that has caused me the biggest concern is I don’t think anybody has realized the impact of this storm surge,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a Saturday evening news conference at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.
Sunday morning is also when forecasters expect storm surge to rise in the vulnerable Florida Keys, perhaps as high as 10 unimaginable feet.
By then, the Category 4 storm will have already abused the Florida Keys for hours. Irma is expected to hit Key West sometime around sunrise. Landfall will be official the moment the center of the hurricane’s eye reaches land. The island registered its first hurricane gust at 9:30 p.m. Saturday night, and the wind built steadily into the wee hours of Sunday.
Key West will be in for a long beating. National Weather Service forecasters expect the island to feel hurricane winds for at least 12 hours before Irma continues moving northwest, closer and closer to hitting Tampa, perhaps the most susceptible city in the country to a major storm’s devastation.
Two deaths were blamed on the storm Saturday, of a man who crashed a pickup truck into a tree in Marathon and a man in Lee County, home to Fort Myers, who fell off a ladder while preparing for Irma. The killer hurricane had already claimed more than 20 lives in its unrelenting, 12-day path across the Caribbean.
Much of Miami-Dade and Broward was under curfew Saturday, with most everyone else on self-imposed curfew to avoid felled trees, strewn branches and downed power lines. Outages increased steadily into Sunday morning, with 281,860 Florida Power & Light customers in the region in the dark as of 4 a.m. — 184,050 in Miami-Dade, 73,400 in Broward and 24,410 in West Palm Beach. All 29,000 customers for Keys Energy Services, a lower Keys utility, lost power by about 11 p.m. Saturday, the company said.
Late Saturday, Hallandale Beach ordered residents of the De Soto Park South Condominiums to boil their water, as a precaution against drinking water dirtied during the storm.
Still, even before the brunt of Irma arrived, Miami-Dade and Broward had already heaved a sigh of relief because the storm wasn’t a direct Category 5 hit, as it had appeared just a few days ago. The South Florida Water Management District, for one, moved from planning for a catastrophe to planning for a more manageable crisis. The agency, which is charged with controlling inland flooding, said Saturday it would no longer have to shut down the entire water flow system along canals, as it had feared.
With more than 6.5 million Floridians ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm, some of the approximately 29,000 who had taken refuge in county-run shelters — a record — started getting stir-crazy Saturday afternoon and decided to go back home, despite warnings that Irma had yet to arrive, and road conditions were deteriorating.
Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Charles Rabin, Rene Rodriguez and Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas contributed from Tallahassee, and David Ovalle contributed from Key West.