Weakening but still potent Irma aims full force at Florida’s Gulf Coast

FORT MYERS, Fla./MIAMI (Reuters) – A weakening but still potent Hurricane Irma lashed Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sunday with tree-bending winds, pounding rain and surging surf, leaving millions of homes and businesses without power while flooding streets and swaying skyscrapers across the state in Miami.

In storm-battered towns up and down Florida’s western shores – from Naples and Fort Myers north through Sarasota, Tampa and St. Petersburg – residents huddled with relatives, neighbors and pets to ride out a hurricane that had ranked as one of the Atlantic’s most powerful in a century.

“I’ve lived here 21 years, and I never imagined we’d get a direct hit,” Shelli Connelly, 55, said as she stood on the sixth-floor balcony of her high-rise condo on Marco Island, where Irma made its second Florida landfall hours after barreling through the resort archipelago of the Florida Keys.

Opting to stay put with her four dogs rather than join evacuations, Connelly said the experience was “very scary.”

“You saw the doors moving, the chandeliers shaking. It was very loud,” she told Reuters as she watched the storm surge move in from the Gulf of Mexico following fierce winds that blew out windows in nearby buildings, stripped trees and slammed cars together in the parking lot below.Irma’s center came ashore at Marco Island not long after it was downgraded to a Category 3 storm from a Category 4 on the five-point Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kph).

A few hours later, it was downgraded again to Category 2, with maximum sustained wind gusts of 110 mph (175 kph), the National Hurricane Center reported in Miami.

Forecasters warned that Irma remained dangerous as it toppled trees and power lines, tore up roofs and threatened coastal areas with storm surges as high as 15 feet (4.6 m). Tornadoes were also spotted through the southern part of the state.

”Aerial video footage broadcast by local television showed what appeared to be extensive flooding of a mobile-home park in Naples, an upscale beach town about a dozen miles (19 km) north of Marco Island.

Some 6.5 million people, about a third of the state’s population, had been ordered to evacuate southern Florida as the storm approached the U.S. mainland after pummeling Cuba with 36-foot-tall (11-m) waves and ravaging several smaller Caribbean islands.

An estimated 170,000 people were lodged in some 650 emergency shelters as of early…

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