Irma, still battering Florida, weakens to tropical storm
Irma weakened to a tropical storm early Monday after hammering much of Florida with roof-ripping winds and gushing floodwaters and that left more than half the state without power.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. As of 8 a.m. ET, Irma was centered more than 100 miles north of Tampa.
Florida's State Emergency Response Team said Monday that 58% of all electricity customers in the state — about 5.8 million accounts — were left without power.
The storm's first landfall in Florida took place on the Keys early Sunday, but by Monday two airports appeared ready to accept planes stocked with relief supplies for the stricken islands.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said Monroe County officials have not yet been able to travel the length of the island chain to access the storm's toll. County crews spent Sunday clearing the airport on Boca Chica Key, and a team planned to check another airport in Marathon by the end of the night. By Monday, large military planes may be capable of ferrying relief supplies, Koon said.
“As we assess the situation, the appropriate resources will start being put on the island,” Koon said. “There will be commodities to help support shelter operations.”
The center of Irma will continue to move over the western Florida peninsula through Monday morning and then into the southeastern United States late Monday and Tuesday. Additional weakening is forecast, and Irma is expected to become a tropical storm over far northern Florida or southern Georgia on Monday.
Storm surge will be a concern. Florida's east coast is expected to get 3 to 5 feet of surge brought onshore by Irma's winds. Areas in the lower Keys got 10 feet and Naples has seen several feet, but an exact number hasn't been reported yet, National Hurricane Center acting Director Ed Rappaport said.
It was a far cry from the pre-Irma exodus that occurred in the days leading up to the monster storm's arrival in Florida, on the heels of a brutal march through the Caribbean that left at least 20 dead and left some islands virtually uninhabitable.
On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration told the New York Times its air traffic control center in Miami, which handles only flights over the southern half of Florida and the Caribbean, had managed 8,107 flights compared to about 2,000 the week before.
Concern that the storm’s powerful winds could weaken the dyke around Lake Okeechobee led Gov. Rick Scott to evacuate nearby communities. A test of the dyke by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed no apparent damage. The Corps will perform another test on Monday before they deem the structure safe, Koon said.
Traffic patterns on U.S. 1 estimated about 10,000 people remained on the Florida Keys despite the mandatory evacuation. The storm made landfall Sunday at 9:10 a.m. at Cudjoe Key, between Marathon and Key West.
Koon said first reports from the Keys showed U.S. 1 may be passable. None of the network of bridges linking the islands appears to be damaged, but they will require safety tests by the Florida Department of Transportation. The agency will fly a drone aircraft along the 100-mile stretch of road Monday morning.
Meanwhile, county crews will continue to clear debris from the roadway, and work to shore up washouts.
“It’s certainly not passable at highway speeds,” Koon said. “Definitely not right now.”
County and municipal leaders who rode out the storm provided information to Koon, which led him to believe the storm was not catastrophic, yet.
“I will tell you that I’m hopeful but I have scattered information as of right now,” he said. “I have not heard anything catastrophic at this point.”
Utilities such as power and water were likely damaged in some areas of the Keys. Four “last resort” shelters set up on the islands will become more permanent, with services such as food and supply distribution. The military planes waiting to be brought in are filled with supplies from organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
The storm also brought punishing winds to Marco Island, but there were no reports of major damage, Koon said, adding he had spoken with Marco Island Fire Chief Mike Murphy.
“Chief Murphy said at this point, for the most part everything is OK,” Koon said. “There’s just no power or water.”
Hurricane Irma weaved and wobbled for days, but by Sunday afternoon it became clear that Irma’s eye would steer clear of Tallahassee.
Leon County imposed a countywide curfew from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights.
The National Hurricane Center said Irma will pass the Leon-Jefferson County border around 2 p.m. Monday afternoon and then head up into north central Alabama by Tuesday morning.
Because of the shift in Irma’s path local residents are less likely to see flying debris and structural damage.
Folks in the Tallahassee-Leon County area can expect strong tropical storm force winds of 40-60 mph with low-end gusts of 60-75 mph and an average of 5 inches of rain.
“That is no reason to let our guard down,” said Don Harrigan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee. “We need to be buttoned up and hunkered down, especially (Monday) afternoon when it peaks.”
Wind conditions are expected taper off by Monday evening, making it possible for utility crews to get out and begin repairing the damage.
Utility officials said it could take weeks for power to be restored to everyone in Florida. The State Emergency Response Team tracked power data for about 10 million homes and businesses.
Some power companies have been working during the storm to restore power. By Sunday, Florida Power & Light company restored power to more than 400,000 customers.
In Brevard County, on the state's Atlantic Coast, the National Weather Service plans to investigate whether there were three additional tornado touchdowns in addition to the confirmed tornado that destroyed six mobile homes Sunday near Turkey Creek in Palm Bay and another that touched down nearby.
There were no injuries reported.
Early Monday, Miami-Dade Police announced via Twitter that 28 people had been arrested for burglary or looting.
28 arrests so far for burglary/looting. Our officers remain on patrol and the curfew is in effect until 7am. #HurricaneIrma— Miami-Dade Police (@MiamiDadePD) September 11, 2017
Fort Lauderdale police said they arrested nine people Sunday on suspicion of looting a pawn shop and nearby shoe store. Two teens were arrested for breaking into six homes Saturday night as the storm intensified. The Broward County sheriff’s office said the two teens were arrested in Weston, about 35 miles north of Miami, after evacuated homeowners, watching their houses remotely, saw the teens breaking in. One of the teens was shot and wounded by a deputy, the sheriff’s office said.
Contributing: Jeffrey Schweers and William Hatfield, Tallahassee Democrat; Dave Berman, Florida Today; Nicole Rodriguez, The Stuart (Fla.) News; Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY.