Irma’s Approach Shifts to Gulf Coast, Keeps Florida on Edge
More than 6.3 million Florida residents have been ordered to evacuate, state officials say, leading to traffic jams, fuel shortages and overrun hotels
Hurricane Irma remained on track Saturday to strike Florida as an extremely dangerous major hurricane, though its path has moved westward, increasing the threat to cities like Tampa along the state’s Gulf Coast.
Regardless of its precise path, the storm is forecast to bring life-threatening “wind impacts” to much of the state of 20.6 million people. Maximum sustained winds dipped to 125 miles per hour after the storm hit Cuba, and it is now a Category 3 hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center. But it is expected to regain strength before pummeling the Florida Keys starting early Sunday morning, and then move along the Southwest Florida coast Sunday afternoon.
The storm killed at least 22 people as it tore through the Caribbean starting early Wednesday. The National Weather Service office in Key West posted all-caps warnings that “THIS IS AS REAL AS IT GETS” stressing that “NOWHERE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS WILL BE SAFE.”
Senior meteorologist for the weather service in Key West, Alan Albanese, said Irma would bring a punishing cocktail of destructive winds, major storm surge, torrential rains, possible tornadoes and widespread power outages.
“This is a very serious threat, potentially catastrophic,” he said. “A lot of people down here in the Keys have not experienced anything with the potential this system has.”
Florida officials have warned that Irma could be worse than Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that devastated South Florida 25 years ago. Andrew killed 61 people in the U.S. and caused nearly $48 billion in economic damage in 2017 dollars, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—the costliest storm in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Hurricane Irma’s shift toward the Gulf Coast has heightened fears of catastrophic flooding on Florida’s west coast. The National Hurricane Center now warns the storm surge could reach 10 to 15 feet above ground from Captiva island, west of Fort Myers, to the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. That warning is an increase from the 8-to-12-foot range forecast Friday night.
“This is a dire and life-threatening situation,” the hurricane center’s Storm Surge Unit tweeted Saturday.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott hammered the point home at a noon briefing Saturday. “There’s a serious threat of significant storm surge flooding along the entire west coast of Florida, and this has increased to 15 feet of impact above ground level,” he said. “Think about that: 15 feet is devastating and will cover your house.”
In the Tampa Bay area, the storm surge could reach 5 to 8 feet, up from an earlier forecast of 3 to 5 feet, the hurricane center said. “Think about that: the typical first story is 7 to 10 feet,” Gov. Scott said.
He reminded residents that the storm surge comes after the wind. “Do not think the storm is over when the wind slows down. The storm surge will rush in, and it could kill you.”
The governor said Southeast Florida is experiencing tropical-storm force winds and 25,000 people have already lost power. “The storm’s here. Hurricane Irma is now impacting our state,” Mr. Scott said. He called for 1,000 nursing volunteers to help at special-needs shelters. “We need more nurses.” There are more than 50,000 people in regular shelters around the state, Gov. Scott said.