Irma: ‘Imminent danger of life-threatening’ storm surges up to 15 feet
Holly Yan, Faith Karimi and Susannah Cullinane, CNN
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(CNN) — Editor’s note: This is a developing story that is being constantly updated as the storm progresses.
Hurricane Irma bludgeoned Florida on Sunday morning, snapping trees like matchsticks and knocking out power to more than 1 million people.
Hurling 130 mph winds, the Category 4 storm made landfall on Cudjoe Key, the National Hurricane Center said. But even more powerful could be the storm surges that threaten to swallow Florida’s coastal cities.
“There is imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding along much of the Florida west coast, including the Florida Keys, where a storm surge warning is in effect,” the hurricane center said.
“The threat of catastrophic storm surge flooding is highest along the southwest coast of Florida, where 10 to 15 feet of inundation above ground level is expected. This is a life-threatening situation.”
Still, not everyone heeded orders to evacuate coastal Florida.
Wayne Ploghoft is hunkered down on the third floor of a building on Marco Island — where catastrophic storm surges are imminent.
He told CNN’s Chris Cuomo he wasn’t able to evacuate because his flight plans didn’t work out. Now Ploghoft and three others are holed up with stockpiles of water, canned food and battery power.
“We’re all going to be OK,” Ploghoft said.
But Gov. Rick Scott said Irma’s wrath is unprecedented.
“We have never had anything like this before,” he told CNN Sunday.
Almost the entire state of Florida is under a hurricane warning affecting at least 36 million people, with concerns of catastrophic gales, torrential rain rain and deadly storm surges.
Miami is also taking a beating from Irma. Ferocious winds knocked out power to more than 650,000 customers in the Miami-Dade area, and at least one construction crane snapped.
The latest developments:
— The forecast track for Irma has shifted 15 miles east, the National Hurricane Center said at 11 a.m. ET. But it’s still not clear exactly when or where on the Florida mainland Irma will make landfall — meaning half the hurricane’s eye is over land.
“With the eye tracking this close to land, everyone needs to be prepared for the worst possible conditions,” CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
— More than 1.35 million electric customers across 24 counties are without power, Florida Power and Light said Sunday morning.
— Miami-Dade officers can no longer respond to calls for service, the Miami-Dade Police Department tweeted Sunday. Police are urging residents to stay indoors and not venture outside.
— A 6 p.m. curfew has been put in place for Tampa. Manatee County officials announced a curfew from 3 p.m. ET Sunday until 3 p.m. ET Monday. Residents must remain either in their home or in a shelter, the sheriff said.
— A storm surge warning wraps around the state, from Brevard County to Tampa Bay.
— More than 72,000 people have moved into more than 390 shelters across the state, the governor’s office said.
— At least 24 deaths have been blamed on Irma in the Caribbean islands, where it hit before barreling toward Florida.
‘You can’t survive these storm surges’
The governor warned some storm surges could be deadly.
“You can’t survive these storm surges,” the governor said.
Those who did not evacuate ahead of the storm are in danger, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Saturday.
“You’re on your own until we can actually get in there and it’s safe,” he told CNN.
But Key West business owner Jason Jonas said he stayed behind because he’s in a home that is “built like a bunker.”
“It’s pretty much the only reason I considered staying here because I knew that I had a pretty good chance of making it through this thing,” he said.
“We’re 30 plus feet above sea level and in a place that’s built to withstand 225 mph winds — I mean that’s a better chance than being exposed out on the highway in traffic trying to make it to Georgia.”
Irma hit Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province late Friday as a Category 5 hurricane before it weakened and headed to the US.
This is the the first year on record that the continental US has had two Category 4 hurricane landfalls in the same year.
Last month, Hurricane Harvey devastated much of coastal Texas and killed more than 70 people.
Other cities will get pummeled
Several Florida cities are in or near the forecast path of the storm’s eye.
The storm will be devastating for central Florida, Tampa, Fort Myers, Naples and Key West, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said storm surge is the main fear.
“We’re going to get through the winds, we’ll get through the rain, depending on what the level of surge is,” he said. “But more importantly, the surge will occur tomorrow at the same time we have a high tide — so that compounds the problem.”
In Fort Myers, where storm surge warnings are in effect, Evanson Ngai stayed up all night, tracking the hurricane.
“I’ve tried to get some sleep but I can’t. Just the nervousness, trying to keep an eye on it to see if its track will change,” he said.
Ngai plans to crouch in the bathtub when it makes landfall.
“Right now, it’s a little bit of gusty winds and some rain,” he said early Sunday. “We’ve moved everything away from windows. We’re hoping for the best — we’ve bought nonperishable foods and water, and we have a flashlight.”
Florida Power and Light estimated 3.4 million of its customers could be without power at some point during Irma, the company’s largest number of outages ever.
“We think this could be the most challenging restoration in the history of the US,” company spokesman Chris McGrath said.
Other states may be affected
Officials in other states are also keeping an eye on Irma. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation for some barrier islands, while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded a state of emergency to include 94 counties.
The National Weather Service in Atlanta issued a tropical storm watch for the area Monday and Tuesday. Schools in the state planned to close Monday.
Alabama and North Carolina may also be affected, FEMA said.