Irma Leaves Trail of Power Outages, Damaged Buildings and Flooding as It Moves Into Georgia

by | September 12, 2017

By Evan Halper and Laura King

As a mighty hurricane, Irma inspired fear. As a tropical storm, it is spreading soggy distress _ and continuing peril _ across a growing swath of the American Southeast.

In what could be a long and messy afterlife, it will tax the patience of millions.

On Monday, a day after visiting lashing rains, surging tides and terrifying winds on nearly every corner of Florida, Irma unleashed flash flooding in three states and left a sweaty, disruptive legacy: no power for about 7 million people.

Confronting a panorama of destruction stretching from coast to coast, with rescue efforts still in progress and a massive cleanup only beginning to gather pace, Florida and federal officials opted for frankness: It might take weeks for electricity to be fully restored.

The storm's direct death toll, mercifully, was not commensurate with Irma's wrath. Authorities in Georgia on Monday reported three storm-related deaths, without providing details, and one person died in South Carolina. An electrocution was reported in central Florida _ a grim hazard in flooding's aftermath. Irma is being blamed for 34 deaths in the Caribbean before it hit Florida, according to The Associated Press.

With power cut for about 6.5 million Floridians and hundreds of thousands of others in Georgia and South Carolina, restoring electricity was an urgent priority, but authorities warned that the fixes wouldn't happen overnight.

"I would caution people to be very patient here," Tom Bossert, the White House homeland security adviser, said at a briefing in Washington, D.C. "We could have power down in homes for the coming weeks."

In recorded history, the U.S. mainland had never before suffered two Category 4 hurricanes in the span of a year, never mind a little over two weeks. Coming on the heels of Hurricane Harvey's devastation in Texas, Irma was expected to be one of the country's most expensive weather disasters.

But on Monday, major insurers were revising estimates downward, though they were still expected to run in the tens of billions of dollars.

Still, as the storm left Florida behind, the danger lingered: Storm surges jeopardized cities along the state's Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and the National Hurricane Center said Irma was still spinning off 60-mph winds as it moved into Georgia on Monday afternoon.

In Jacksonville, Fla., water poured rapidly into downtown streets, with the St. Johns River hitting flood levels not seen in decades.

"Get out NOW," the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office tweeted in a warning to people in evacuation zones. It advised those who needed help escaping flooded homes to visibly display something white _ a shirt or a pillowcase.

Downtown Charleston, S.C., too was hit by heavy storm flooding, and communities in coastal Georgia were swamped as well.

With Irma's reach spreading over hundreds of miles, Alabama battened down; schools and businesses closed across the state. In Georgia, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was still open Monday, but thousands of flights have been canceled.

Although the storm's raging winds and punishing rains lent it an apocalyptic feel as it unfolded in Florida over the weekend, damage initially appeared significant and widespread, but short of catastrophic.

That was true even in the Florida Keys, where Irma made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who flew in with the Coast Guard plane, said he saw "devastation" _ roofs ripped away, boats tossed ashore, mobile homes overturned _ but "it's not as bad as we thought."

Still he cautioned, "It's going to be a long road; there's a lot of damage."

Eleventh-hour shifts in Irma's trajectory undoubtedly saved both lives and property. Last week, while the storm was roaring through the Caribbean, where it devastated a chain of small islands, one projected track had it aiming straight for Miami, Florida's biggest city. But it veered westward instead.

On Sunday, still at hurricane strength, Irma appeared set for a direct strike on the highly built-up Gulf Coast region of Tampa-St. Petersburg, but it tacked east-northeast instead, losing strength as it moved over land.

Experts say the number of deaths and amount of damage that can be expected from a storm of that strength have been reduced in recent years by advances in forecasting, which enable authorities to order people out of harm's way, and stricter building standards that help fortify the sorts of large public venues where people seek shelter _ even if smaller wooden structures remain vulnerable.

While the seas to Florida's west bent to Irma's will, receding and then rising, the National Hurricane Center also warned of "significant river flooding" for the next five days along the storm track. Scott called that flood threat the storm's most dangerous aftermath.

On Monday, just outside Orlando, hundreds of homes were ordered emptied as floodwaters rose, and firefighters staged boat rescues for some. Another classic Florida hazard struck nearby: A 60-foot sinkhole abruptly gaped at the base of an apartment building, which was hastily evacuated. No injuries were reported.

Not all damage has yet been chronicled. Except for rescuers and suppliers, the Florida Keys were mainly unreachable by the single 42-bridge highway linking them, although a flotilla of boats was making its way.

The Navy said it was sending in four vessels, including the aircraft carrier Lincoln, to provide emergency services in the Keys.

Coast Guard and naval helicopters buzzed over the low-lying island chain, making aerial assessments. Units of the Florida National Guard and other personnel were deployed for the cleanup, bringing bulldozers and other heavy equipment with them.

In Florida City, the gateway to the Keys, frustration mounted among those who wanted to go back home after obeying orders to get out.

"I'm sorry I ever agreed to evacuate," said Warren Stincer, a boat captain and carpenter from Key Largo. "My home is just 20 minutes down the road, and I know the road is clear."

Joe Sanchez, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said the road would remain closed to all but emergency crews until authorities determined it was safe.

President Donald Trump expressed resolve in the face of the twin hurricanes, even if his administration is skeptical of climate changes that scientists say are contributing to increasingly violent weather.

At a Pentagon ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks of 16 years ago, Trump pledged support for those afflicted by the storms in Florida and Texas.

"These are storms of catastrophic severity, and we are marshaling the full resources of the federal government to help our fellow Americans," the president said.

As Monday dawned, many people headed out to check on damage despite officials' warnings of continued hazards, including high waters, downed power lines and sewage-tainted floodwaters.

At the Riverwood Estates mobile home park in Naples, on the Gulf Coast, Terry Thompson, 65, was among those surveying what the storm had wrought. He rode out the storm with his dog in his mobile home, which he'd moved into only two weeks earlier.

His neighbor's carport roof had flown off and smacked into his wife's car, and tree branches and debris littered the streets of the complex.

"There's a lot of cleanup," he said. But his car and boat were intact.

After making landfall early Sunday in the Keys, the storm spent Sunday chewing and churning its way up much of the Gulf Coast, but also paralyzing Miami, the normally buzzing metropolis on the other side of the peninsula. Most people were trapped indoors all day by wind and rain while floodwaters rose in downtown streets.

On Monday, the city looked bedraggled, but the sun was shining. Still, authorities were asking people to stay indoors, and many businesses remained shuttered.

Miami International Airport, the scene of a frantic exodus in the days before the storm struck, said it would be closed Monday, with limited flights beginning Tuesday. Hundreds of flights were canceled over the weekend. The airport's director, Emilio Gonzalez, tweeted that the airport, hit by gusts of nearly 100 mph, "sustained significant water damage throughout."

(Halper reported from Marco Island and King from Washington. Times staff writers Patrick McConnell in Florida City and John Cherwa in Orlando contributed to this report.)

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times