Irma downgraded to tropical storm as it moves inland, causes flooding
By TAMARA LUSH
TAMPA, Florida (AP) – Hurricane Irma weakened to a still-dangerous tropical storm Monday as it pushed inland, triggering record flooding in Florida’s northeastern corner, while rescuers in its soggy, wind-battered wake mobilized to reach victims and learn the full extent of the damage.
The storm wreaked havoc from the state’s southernmost point to areas near the Georgia line, with homes and cars swamped, trees flattened, boats cast onto roads in the Florida Keys and streets underwater in many places. Irma also snapped miles upon miles of power lines and toppled three massive construction cranes over Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
More than 400 miles from where Irma first came ashore, storm surge brought heavy flooding to Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast on Monday. The flooding broke a 1964 record by at least a foot.
"Stay inside unless you are in danger due to flooding," the forecasters warned.
In nearby Clay County, crews pulled at least 46 people from flooded homes, and still more were stranded, said emergency operations manager Joe Ward.
As of midmorning, Irma’s outer bands were also blowing into Georgia, where the storm’s center was expected to arrive later in the day. From there, Irma is expected to push into Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee on Tuesday and Wednesday.
A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state.
No deaths in Florida were immediately linked to the storm. At least 24 people were killed in the Caribbean as Irma ravaged a string of resort islands long known as vacation playgrounds for the rich.
On Monday morning, Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm, with winds of 70 mph (110 kph), just below hurricane force.
More than 200,000 people waited in shelters across Florida. Nearly 4.5 million homes and businesses statewide lost power, and utility officials said it will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone. More than 100,000 were in the dark in Georgia.
The monster storm arrived in Florida on Sunday morning as a fearsome Category 4 hurricane but weakened rapidly in the evening and overnight.
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 rolled through in the middle of the night Monday, it was down to a moderate Category 2, with winds around 100 mph or less.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the situation was not as bad as it could have been but warned residents that dangerous storm surge continued. He also reported downed power lines and other debris.
"What we feared the most was the surge," he said on MSNBC. "The surge is yet to be finished."
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.
Many communities in Irma’s wake feared what destruction would be revealed as daylight allowed authorities to canvass neighborhoods.
Video from the Keys showed a pickup truck zig-zagging over the center line to avoid several boats tossed onto the asphalt. Nearby, houses were shoved from their foundations, and uprooted trees and other debris blocked a road.
Authorities were set to begin house-to-house searches in the Keys to check on victims. About 30,000 people heeded orders to evacuate the low-lying islands as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused.
East of Tampa, winds knocked a utility pole and power lines onto a sheriff’s cruiser late Sunday in Polk County. A deputy and a paramedic, who had just escorted an elderly patient to safety, were trapped for two hours until a crew could free them. Both were unhurt.
And more than 120 homes were being evacuated early Monday in Orange County, 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, 30 others had to be evacuated when a 60-foot sinkhole opened up under an apartment building. No injuries were reported.
Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Terry Spencer in Palm Beach County; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee; Terrance Harris and Claire Galofaro in Orlando; and Jason Dearen and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.
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