MIAMI—Ready or not, Florida found itself face to face with Hurricane Irma’s galloping winds and rains last Sunday, as evacuees and holdouts alike marked uneasy time in homes and shelters from the Keys to the Panhandle, tap-tapping their nearly dead cell phones for news they were frantic to hear but helpless to change.
The hurricane rammed ashore at Cudjoe Key before whirling on the state’s southwest and west coast on the first day of its sodden chug north, buckling two giant construction cranes in Miami and rotating others, like clock hands, snacking on trees and power lines, and interrupting millions of lives.
An apocalyptic forecast had already forced one of the largest evacuations in United States history. Now it was time to find out what the storm would do—and whether the heavily populated cities of Naples, Fort Myers, Saint Petersburg and Tampa were prepared.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn of Tampa said at a Sunday news conference, paraphrasing the boxer, Mike Tyson. “Well, we’re about to get punched in the face.”
Having flattened a string of Caribbean islands and strafed Puerto Rico and Cuba over the last week as a dangerous Category 4 and 5 storm, Irma was downgraded last Sunday afternoon to Category 2, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The center said that, while the storm was weakening, it was “expected to remain a powerful hurricane,” with maximum sustained winds about 100 miles per hour (mph), down from 130 mph.
On Monday it was set to spin over northern Florida, with Georgia next in line.
The sea was Irma’s ally in destruction. In Key Largo it annexed backyard pools. In Miami it poured a salt river down Biscayne Boulevard, the city’s main artery.
In Naples and Tampa Bay it pulled back from the shoreline, leaving waters so shallow that unwary dogs could splash around what remained. But that was only a prelude to a violent return: When the wind changed, scientists warned, the water would hurl itself right back to where it was, and then some.
At least four deaths were reported in Florida after the storm’s arrival last Sunday, adding to a death toll of at least 27 from its Caribbean rampage.
More than 3 million people in Florida were without power, officials said last Sunday night.
Officials along the Gulf Coast had believed they would be spared the worst of the assault until the storm’s trajectory took an unfavorable westward bounce late in the week. After a Saturday spent hastily converting fortified buildings into shelters, they were hurrying the final preparations into place last Sunday.
Curfews were declared in Collier County, which includes Naples; Lee County, which includes Fort Myers; and in Tampa, and officials said they would not be lifted until the storm cleared.
Shortly before 5 p.m. last Sunday, the Tampa police called officers off the streets as the city confronted consistent wind gusts of more than 40 mph. The westbound lanes on two of the three bridges connecting Tampa with Saint Petersburg were closed.
Lest any humans decide to take the weather into their own hands, the sheriff’s office in Pasco County, north of Tampa Bay, was telling local residents not to shoot weapons at the hurricane.
“You won’t make it turn around,” the sheriff’s office tweeted, “& it will have very dangerous side effects.”
Midafternoon in Fort Myers, it was hard to tell which was worse, the wind or the rain. The wind whipped the tops of palm trees around like pom-poms in the hands of a cheerleader. At one Fort Myers hotel, the rain pelted the building with such force that it came into rooms around window frames, stains spreading ever wider on the carpet. The Keys, a collection of islands off Florida’s southern tip, met Irma first.
Images showed entire houses under water. The flooding in Key Largo had small boats bobbing in the streets next to furniture and refrigerators like rubber toys in a bathtub. Shingles were kidnapped from roofs; swimming pools dissolved into the ocean.
“Still whiteout,” John Huston, a resident who had stayed, wrote in a text message to The Associated Press around lunchtime last Sunday. “Send cold beer.”
Local authorities were still waiting out the storm before determining the extent of the flooding and damage. But one of Irma’s casualties was indisputable: The roof of the Key Largo building that local emergency operations officials were using after they fled their headquarters in Marathon had blown off.
On Key West, by contrast, one resident who was able to speak to a reporter by landline described streets pocked with shutters, windows and branches, but no flooding or ravaged houses. The resident, an 81-year-old artist named Richard Peter Matson who has lived in an old town house there since 1980, had decided to shelter in his home against all advice.
“If anything was going to happen,” Matson said, “I wanted to be here to take care of it.”
Those who did evacuate should not come back until local officials had a chance to inspect the 42 bridges that connect the Keys to each other and to the mainland, said Cammy Clark, a county spokesman. As a precaution, officials were asking residents to boil water. Irma was capricious. The residents of the Miami area, once projected to bear the worst of it, seemed at some points Sunday to be suffering more from the fidgets than anything else.
As power vanished, their cell phones became their only tether to news, family and friends. When their cellphone batteries died, they dashed out to their cars to recharge.
Yamile Castella and her husband, Ramon, both Miami natives, spent last Sunday reading, listening to Hamilton and watching Wonder Woman until the wind gusts intensified enough to throw half an avocado tree at their house. All the while, Yamile Castella was juggling four chats on WhatsApp—a rowing group, a running group and two family groups, everyone trading stories about the highest gusts, who was eating what, who was doing what.
“We feel like we’re not alone,” she said.
Image credits: AP/Wilfredo Lee