Saturday, September 9, 2017

Irma's Approach Shifts to Gulf Coast (VIDEO)

At WSJ, "Irma’s Approach Shifts to Gulf Coast, Keeps Florida on Edge":

MIAMI — After days of preparation, Hurricane Irma—one of the most powerful storms to cross the Atlantic—is forecast to hit the Florida Keys around daybreak Sunday before continuing on a path that threatens catastrophic flooding along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Deadly storm surges could inundate parts of the state’s southwest coast with up to 15 feet of water, the National Hurricane Center said, and much of the state will see “life-threatening wind impacts” regardless of the hurricane’s exact path.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott hammered home the danger from rising waters Saturday. “There’s a serious threat of significant storm surge flooding along the entire west coast of Florida” he said. “Think about that: 15 feet is devastating and will cover your house.”

The state of 20.6 million people has been readying itself for Irma as the storm barreled into the Caribbean, killing at least 22 people and battering islands with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. Now Irma is headed for the U.S. mainland as a Category 3 storm that is expected to pick up strength overnight as it moves away from Cuba into warm open water.

Irma would bring a punishing cocktail of destructive winds, major storm surge, torrential rains, possible tornadoes and widespread power outages, said Alan Albanese, senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Key West.

“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.

Parts of Florida were experiencing tropical-storm force winds Saturday evening. “We have been very aggressive in our preparation for this storm and now it’s upon us,” Mr. Scott said. “Every Floridian should take this seriously and be aggressive to protect their family.”

“The storm surge will rush in and it could kill you,” he said.

More than 76,000 electricity customers had lost power by early Saturday evening, mostly in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, a tiny fraction of the state’s total, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The number is expected to grow.

Hurricane Irma’s westward shift toward the Gulf Coast brought some sense of relief to cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale but heightened fears of catastrophic flooding on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The hurricane center 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.

Residents on the state’s west coast quickly shifted plans and bunkered down.

Wrede McCollum, who lives on Pine Island off Florida’s southwest coast, had planned to stay at a friend’s house—despite a mandatory evacuation order—because of reports of log-jammed highways and packed shelters. But after seeing the storm’s projected westward turn, Mr. McCollum and his friends decided to go to a shelter.

“The current track seems headed right for St. James City,” where he lives, he said by text. “Jangling a few nerves here.”

Lisa Tilson, a Boca Raton native, has been through many hurricanes but she worried about this one. She drove to her mother’s house in Sun City Center, a retirement community near Tampa on the Gulf Coast, only to find herself more squarely in Irma’s path. The family rushed to protect the home.

As the storm approached Saturday afternoon, Ms. Tilson planned to stay in one hallway with her daughters, while her mother, her mother’s partner and Ms. Tilson’s 80-year-old aunt stay in another, she said. “That’s where we are going to ride it out,” she said. “I’ve had a weird feeling in my stomach about this storm since I first heard about it.”

More than 6.3 million Florida residents, about 30% of the total, have been told to leave their homes, state officials say. Evacuations have led to long lines at gas stations, fuel shortages, traffic jams and overrun hotel rooms.

More than 70,000 Floridians have taken refuge in more than 385 shelters around the state...