After slamming Keys, Irma to batter Florida Peninsula, with 'catastrophic' storm surge feared

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The extremely dangerous Category 4 Irma crashed into the Florida Keys on Sunday morning, unleashing violent wind gusts and storm-surge flooding. Florida’s western coast next faces Irma’s wrath, and forecasters fear this storm will go down as one of the worst in the state’s history.

Winds in excess of 100 mph could batter numerous population centers along the western coast, including Naples and Fort Myers and up the coast to Tampa. And coastal waters could rise 10 to 15 feet above normally dry land, inundating homes, businesses and roads, an “imminent danger,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

“The Keys through Tampa will likely experience the worst storm surge event that area has seen in generations,” said Bill Read, a former director of the National Hurricane Center.

When Irma crashed into the Keys early Sunday, following Hurricane Harvey’s assault in Texas, it marked the first time on record that two Category 4 storms had made landfall in the United States in the same year.

Because of the storm’s magnitude, the entire state of Florida is being severely affected by damaging winds and torrential rains. Tropical storm and hurricane conditions were also predicted to spread into the Florida Panhandle, eastern Alabama, much of Georgia and southern South Carolina by Monday.

At 11 a.m. Sunday, the eye of Irma was heading toward southwest Florida, centered 80 miles south-southeast of Naples. The storm, packing peak winds of 130 mph, was crawling to the north at 8 mph. It was predicted to move up the west coast of Florida through the day Sunday and into Sunday night.

Spiral bands were also unleashing tropical-storm-force winds in southeast Florida. Sustained winds in Miami and Fort Lauderdale were 40 to 50 mph Sunday morning, gusting to 60 to 70 mph.

The National Weather Service in Miami warned that gusts could reach 100 mph at the upper floors of high-rise buildings, and an isolated gust hit 100 mph at the University of Miami, according to the Weather Channel. Nearly 1.1 million customers were without power, mostly in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Video from NBC News showed water pouring through Miami’s streets, in between high-rises.

As the storm’s spiral bands walloped South and Central Florida, the potential for tornadoes arose in the swirling air, and the Weather Service issued watches and warnings. Witnesses captured photographs of a twister moving off the ocean toward Fort Lauderdale on Saturday evening.

Hurricane warnings cover all of Florida except the western Panhandle, where a tropical storm warning was in effect.

A storm-surge warning was also issued for much of the Florida peninsula (except for a small section from North Miami Beach to Jupiter Inlet), and even extended up the Georgia coast into southern South Carolina. The Hurricane Center said this would bring the risk of “dangerous” and “life-threatening” inundation and that the threat was highest along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Florida Keys, where it said the surge is expected to be “catastrophic.”

“In SOUTHWEST FLORIDA - the NAPLES-FT. MYERS-CAPE CORAL area, the potential exists for the worst hurricane in history,” Bryan Norcross, The Weather Channel’s hurricane specialist, posted to Facebook.

Because of the shift in the most likely storm track to the west, Miami and Southeast Florida were most likely to miss the storm’s intensely destructive core, known as the eyewall, where winds are strongest. Even so, because of Irma’s enormous size, the entire Florida peninsula and even the panhandle were likely to witness damaging winds. The National Hurricane Center warned the storm would bring “life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state.”

A computer model projection showed nearly 2 million power outages were possible in Florida and the Southeast U.S. from the storm’s winds.

While Irma’s peak winds had lessened some on Saturday, easing down to 120 miles per hour, as its center scraped over Cuba’s north coast, it restrengthened over the extremely warm water of the Florida straits (nearly 90 degrees).

Conditions will continue to deteriorate Sunday over Florida from south to north as Irma chugs up the coast.

The storm will move up west coast Sunday afternoon and evening, walloping Marco Island, Naples, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, Sarasota and Tampa.

The storm track could still shift slightly west. If it shifts west, the center could stay over the Gulf of Mexico until hitting the northern portion of Florida’s Gulf Coast Sunday night, perhaps in the Big Bend area south of Tallahassee.

Models run Saturday night suggested a landfall between Naples and Tampa on Sunday afternoon or evening was plausible, but pinpointing the exact landfall location is difficult for a storm predicted to parallel a long coastline.

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Effects on Florida

Here’s a guide to what is most likely and where ...

Florida Keys

Time frame for worst conditions: Through Sunday afternoon

Hazard Threats: Wind, storm surge and rain.

Sustained winds of 70 to 100 mph, with gusts up to 120 mph will continue through early Sunday afternoon over the Keys. The winds already knocked the observation station at Key West International airport offline.

Outside of the dangerous winds, catastrophic storm surge of 5 to 10 feet or more is expected to inundate much of the island chain. Heavy rain will add to the water issues, as anywhere from an additional 5 to 10 inches of additional rain will fall before the worst of the storm is over. Unfortunately, the damage potential on the Keys could be landscape-altering after taking a direct hit from this storm.

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Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach

Timeframe for worst conditions: Through Sunday night

Hazard Threats: Strong winds, tornadoes, heavy rain

The Miami area was in the thick of it late Sunday morning. Irma has been battering Florida’s southeastern coast with round after round of strong thunderstorms embedded in the storm’s outer rainbands since Saturday evening. Sustained winds of 45-70 mph with gusts of 80+ mph will last well into Sunday afternoon.

Swirling winds at all levels of the atmosphere has also increased the chances of tornadoes developing at any point on Sunday, especially in locations right along the water. Rainfall totals of 4 to 8 inches or more are expected on Sunday alone, which may exacerbate localized flooding. With Irma’s last-minute track shift to the west, storm surge won’t be as big of a concern here as it is elsewhere, with a 2 to 4 feet of surge expected along much of Florida’s east coast.

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Naples/Ft. Myers/Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg

Timeframe for worst conditions: Through Monday morning

Hazard threats: Storm surge and wind

Irma’s ultimate destination will be along the west coast of Florida. This means the conditions will deteriorate rapidly from Naples to Tampa Bay throughout Sunday afternoon. However, Irma’s path will take it parallel to the west coast of Florida, keeping the entire region engulfed in the dangerous northeast quadrant of the storm, where winds are strongest. Sustained winds of 35-60 mph are forecast through Sunday afternoon, with sustained hurricane force winds and gusts over 100 mph arriving to Naples by Sunday evening and in St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay several hours later.

The most dangerous hazard for this region will be the extreme storm surge. Nowhere in the entire state of Florida will the storm surge levels be higher than along the Gulf facing coast, with storm surge totals of 8 to 12 feet and locally up to 15 feet forecast. Any coastal city from Tampa Bay south to Naples is at risk, with historic flooding (the likes of which haven’t been seen in this area since Hurricane Donna in 1960) threatening the thousands of people and structures.

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Orlando/Central Florida

Time frame for worst conditions: Sunday morning through Monday morning

Hazard threats: Wind, rain, and tornadoes.

Inland areas won’t escape the effects of Irma. The storm is an extremely large in size, with tropical storm force winds extending outward over 200 miles from the center. The wind speeds in central Florida and the Orlando area will start to pick up by late Sunday afternoon, with sustained winds of 40-60 mph and gusts of 70+ mph lasting from late Sunday night through Monday morning.

Heavy rain will also cause issues, with a general 6 to 12-plus inches of rain expected by the time the storm is over. The threat of tornadoes will increase by Sunday night as well as the storm’s center tracks north along the west coast of Florida.

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Jacksonville/Daytona Beach

Timeline for worst conditions: Sunday evening through Monday afternoon

Hazard threats: Rain, tornadoes, wind

The northeast portion of Florida will be spared the worst of Irma, but won’t escape unscathed. Sustained tropical force winds of 40 to 55 mph will overspread the area from Daytona Beach to Jacksonville by Sunday evening, with the worst winds (gusts up to 70 mph) occurring overnight. Heavy rain will be a storyline here as 6 to 10-plus inches of rain is expected to fall in a relatively short period of time.

As with other parts of the state, the tornado threat will peak overnight on Sunday as Irma’s storm center tracks northward.

Storm surge values will be elevated (2-4 feet) but should only result in minor to moderate coastal flooding.

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Potential effects on Georgia and the southeastern U.S.

Timeline for worst conditions: Monday morning through Tuesday morning

Hazard Threats: Wind, rain, and, at the coast, storm surge

Hurricane warnings extend well into Georgia, covering over half of the state. Parts of southern South Carolina are also under a hurricane warning as well, with Irma poised to maintain its hurricane force strength for several hours after landfall.

Sustained tropical force winds of 25 to 45 mph will spread over Georgia from south to north starting late Sunday night. The strongest sustained winds (40 to 50 mph) with gusts of 60+ mph will move in on early Monday morning, lasting through Monday evening. This includes the city of Atlanta, currently under a tropical storm warning, where sustained winds of 25-40 mph with gusts up to 60 mph will occur from about 10 p.m. Sunday night to about 5 p.m. on Monday afternoon. This could lead to downed trees and outages.

Heavy rain is also expected, with storm totals of 6-10 inches forecast, the bulk of which should fall on Monday.

Storm surge along the Georgia/South Carolina coast will be a hazard as well, with the Hurricane Center predicting a surge of 4 to 6 feet. Of particular concern here is the duration of the storm surge. Persistent onshore winds will extend the surge component here, with elevated water levels potentially lasting up to 36 hours.

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