Hurricane Irma weakened to a Category 2 hurricane on Sunday as its winds – described as a “low howl” by those still in Florida – slowed to 110 mph, but the monster storm had already ripped up trees, spawned tornado warnings, flooded streets, and was threatening a storm surge that could swamp cities in southern Florida, scientists said.
At least three people in Florida have been killed, the BBC reported Sunday evening. More than 2.3 million were without power, and 70,000 were hunkering down in shelters.
“The windows are shaking and the wind outside is blowing,” New York Times correspondent Frances Robles wrote from Miami on Sunday morning, before Irma made landfall. “Every few minutes, you can hear the faint sound of a tornado alarm coming from someone’s phone or computer. The trees outside are not bending as much as I thought they would.”
By Sunday afternoon, the center of the Hurricane Irma made had reached the coast near Naples, Florida, threatening a 15-foot storm surge. Waters on the Gulf Coast of Florida had risen four feet by 6 p.m. local time, the NWS office in Louisville tweeted.
The National Hurricane Center advised anyone who hadn’t evacuated from Naples, Marco Island and the surrounding area to move away from the coast.
The eyewall – the strongest portion of the storm around Hurricane Irma’s eye – was hammering Fort Myers on Sunday evening as the monster storm moved toward Tampa Bay.
The National Weather Service sent out a tornado advisory for central Florida as Irma’s violent winds spawned severe thunderstorms in the region.
“TAKE COVER NOW! Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows. If you are outdoors, in a mobile home, or in a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris,” the agency said.
Storm surge warnings were also in place for parts of Miami beach, Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys. Video posted by USA Today showed the surge engulfing neighborhoods in Miami.
“A Storm Surge Warning means there is a danger of life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, during the next 36 hours in the indicated locations,” a National Hurricane Center alert said.
As people fled their homes, several Florida cities and Miami-Dade County established curfews to prevent looting.
President Donald Trump promised emergency aid and approved a disaster declaration on Sunday. The federal funding included temporary housing grants, the BBC reported. Trump signed H.R. 601, which diverts more than $15 billion to relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey and western wildfires, on Friday.
Though weaker by Sunday afternoon, Irma was expected to remain at hurricane strength until Monday, meteorologists said.
Before reaching Florida, Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean, killing more than 25 people, leaving Puerto Rico without power and more than half the population of Barbuda homeless. In Cuba, Irma tore down houses and tore up trees.
At one point, sustained windspeeds of 185 mph and gusts topping 200 mph made it the strongest hurricane ever recorded.