Ships head to hurricane-battered Florida Keys

Updated September 11, 2017 - 2:21 pm

MIAMI — Authorities sent an aircraft carrier and other Navy ships to Florida to help with search-and-rescue operations Monday as a flyover of the hurricane-battered Keys yielded what the governor said were scenes of devastation.

“I just hope everyone survived,” Gov. Rick Scott said.

He said boats were cast ashore, water, sewers and electricity were knocked out, and “I don’t think I saw one trailer park where almost everything wasn’t overturned.” Authorities also struggled to clear the single highway connecting the string of islands to the mainland.

The scale of the damage inflicted by Irma on Sunday began to come into focus as the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm and finally pushed its way out of Florida, but not before dealing a parting shot by triggering severe flooding around Jacksonville in the state’s northeastern corner.

Around midday, Irma also spread misery into Georgia and South Carolina as it moved inland with winds at 50 mph.

 

One death in Florida, that of a man killed in an auto accident in the Keys during the storm, was blamed on Irma, along with one death in Georgia. At least 36 people were killed in the Caribbean as the storm closed in on the U.S. mainland.

The governor said that the damage along Florida’s southwest coast in such places as Naples and Fort Myers was not as bad as feared. But in the Keys, he said, “there is devastation.”

“It’s horrible, what we saw,” Scott said. “I know for our entire state, especially the Keys, it’s going to be a long road.”

He said the Navy dispatched the USS Iwo Jima, USS New York and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to help with search and rescue and other relief efforts.

During its rainy, windy run up the full 400-mile length of Florida, Irma swamped homes, uprooted trees, flooded streets, snapped miles of power lines and toppled construction cranes.

“How are we going to survive from here?” asked Gwen Bush, who waded through thigh-deep floodwaters outside her central Florida home to reach National Guard rescuers and get a ride to a shelter. “What’s going to happen now? I just don’t know.”

 

More than 6.5 million homes and businesses statewide remained without power, and 180,000 people huddled in shelters. Officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.

Irma was at one point the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with winds up to 185 mph (298 kph). By Monday afternoon, its winds were down to 60 mph (97 kph).

The hurricane’s wrath in the Sunshine State extended the full length of the state and reached from the west coast to the east.

The Keys felt Irma’s full fury when it came ashore as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph (209 kph) winds.

Emergency managers there declared “the Keys are not open for business” and warned that there was no fuel, electricity, running water or cell service and that supplies were low and anxiety high.

“HELP IS ON THE WAY,” they promised on Facebook.

In the Jacksonville area, close to the Georgia line, storm surge brought some of the worst flooding ever seen there, with at least 46 people pulled from swamped homes.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office warned residents along the St. Johns River to “Get out NOW.”

“If you need to get out, put a white flag in front of your house. A t-shirt, anything white,” the office said on its Facebook page. “Search and rescue teams are ready to deploy.”

As Irma began moving into Georgia, a tornado spun off by the storm was reported on the coast, and firefighters inland had to rescue several people after trees fell on their homes.

A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state. More than 100,000 customers were without power in Georgia and over 80,000 in South Carolina.

Over the next two days, Irma is expected to push to the northwest, into Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

People in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area were braced for its first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. But by the time it struck in the middle of the night Monday, its winds were down to 100 mph (161 kph) or less, and the damage was nowhere near as bad as expected.

In Redington Shores west of Tampa, Carl Roberts spent a sleepless night riding out Irma in his 17th-floor beachfront condo. After losing power late Sunday, he made it through the worst of the storm shaken but unhurt.

“The hurricane winds lashed the shutters violently, throughout the night,” he wrote in a text message, “making sleep impossible.”

As morning broke, he couldn’t open the electric shutters to see outside.

More than 120 homes were being evacuated early Monday in just outside Orlando as floodwaters started to pour in. Firefighters and National Guardsmen went door-to-door and used boats to ferry families to safety.

A few miles away, a huge sinkhole opened at the edge of an apartment building, swallowing air conditioning units and bushes. Firefighters evacuated more than two dozen tenants in the pounding rain and wind.

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