STORM­ING THE SHORE After Florida Keys, storm’s shift west­ward men­aces Naples, Tampa

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Dance

The outer bands of Hur­ri­cane Irma, weak­ened by a blow to Cuba but still life-threat­en­ing, reached the Florida Keys on Satur­day, de­liv­er­ing hur­ri­cane-force winds, flat­ten­ing trees and cut­ting power, as fears of dev­as­ta­tion shifted from metropoli­tan Mi­ami to an­other vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion cen­ter around Tampa Bay.

The core of Irma, which had sus­tained winds of 120 mph late Satur­day night, was ex­pected to move into Florida this morn­ing on a north-by-north­west path.

Lo­cal, state and fed­eral of­fi­cials had for days called on res­i­dents and vis­i­tors to evac­u­ate Mi­ami Beach and other At­lantic Coast re­sorts for days, but as Tampa found it­self in Irma’s path, many on Florida’s Gulf Coast were caught off guard.

“For five days, we were told it was go­ing to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours be­fore it hits, we’re now told it’s com­ing up the west coast,” said Jeff Beer­bohm, a 52-year-old en­tre­pre­neur in St. Peters­burg. “As usual, the weath­er­man — I don’t know why they’re paid.”

The hur­ri­cane’s core was ex­pected to hit the Keys by this morn­ing and Tampa by tonight. But fore­cast­ers warned that the en­tire Florida penin­sula faces life-threat­en­ing hur­ri­cane-force winds and storm surge.

The late west­ward shift in Irma’s track caused one last mo­ment of panic for those Florid­i­ans who have watched with con­cern as Irma killed at least 20 peo­ple in the Caribbean and left thou­sands more home­less.

Penny Mur­ray, who made a last-minute de­ci­sion to flee Fort Laud­erdale for a friend’s home on the Gulf Coast in Sara­sota, be­came a “ner­vous wreck” Satur­day when she re­al­ized

she might have moved from the fry­ing pan into the fire.

“Oh my God, I’m cry­ing. I can’t stop cry­ing,” the 69-year-old said. “We come all the way up here to be safe, and now it’s go­ing to hit us even worse.”

The Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter down­graded Irma to a Cat­e­gory 3 storm Satur­day, with max­i­mum sus­tained winds of 120mph. But the storm was strength­en­ing as it ap­proached in the At­lantic and was ex­pected to make land­fall in the Florida Keys this morn­ing as a Cat­e­gory 4 storm, driv­ing a storm surge of 5 to 10 feet.

Me­te­o­rol­o­gists are ex­pect­ing the storm to hit the United States as many as three times, with blows to the lower Keys and on the Gulf Coast near Fort My­ers or Cape Co­ral. After pass­ing over the Tampa-St. Peters­burg re­gion, Irma’s core could go back into the Gulf of Mex­ico briefly be­fore hit­ting closer to the Florida pan­han­dle.

Tampa has not been struck by a ma­jor hur­ri­cane since 1921, when its pop­u­la­tion was about 10,000, Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter spokesman Den­nis Felt­gen said. Now the area is home to around 3 mil­lion peo­ple.

“Irma is ex­pected to make land­fall in Florida as an ex­tremely dan­ger­ous ma­jor hur­ri­cane, bring­ing life-threat­en­ing wind im­pacts to much of the state re­gard­less of the ex­act track of the cen­ter,” the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter said.

With the win­dow for es­cape clos­ing fast, Gov. Rick Scott gave a frank warn­ing Satur­day morn­ing to those in the evac­u­a­tion zones: “You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” he said.

For many on the Gulf Coast, it was too late for that. A 7,500-bed shel­ter at the Ger­main Arena on the Gulf Coast near Naples quickly drew thou­sands seek­ing refuge. The line to enter snaked up and down the park­ing lot, and it ap­peared there might be more peo­ple than beds. Other shel­ters were fill­ing up fast, leav­ing of­fi­cials scram­bling to ready new lo­ca­tions.

Elderly res­i­dents who man­aged to es­cape other storms found them­selves un­able to leave town. The only in­ter­state lead­ing out of harm’s way was jammed with evac­uees. Lo­cal of­fi­cials ad­vised those who were left to seek refuge at lo­cal shel­ters. Those who heard from friends who man­aged to pack up their cars and hit the high­way re­peated sto­ries of 13-hour drives just to get to the state line.

Ann John­son, 82, sat with her hus­band and an­other cou­ple un­der the flu­o­res­cent lights of the Pal­metto Ridge High School cafe­te­ria.

“This is the first time we have come to a shel­ter,” she said. “Usu­ally we just pack up and go. We looked at the tim­ing of this and re­al­ized there was nowhere to go. This is as safe a place as any.”

John­son had slept across three stiff plas­tic chairs the night be­fore. There weren’t enough cots for ev­ery­one. Only the in­firm were given beds.

Pat and Den­nis Boyle, an­other elderly cou­ple, had been track­ing the storm closely and thought they would be safe in their in­land home. They, too, ended up at the shel­ter.

“We couldn’t get any­where else,” said Den­nis Boyle, 87. “The prob­lem with try­ing to leave is you can get on the in­ter­state and run out of gas. All the gas sta­tions are closed. What do you do then?”

On Satur­day, the state was al­ready be­gin­ning to feel Irma’s mus­cle. Nearly 80,000 peo­ple lost power by 6 p.m. in South­east Florida as the wind be­gan gust­ing. A 70-mph gust was re­ported at the Fort Laud­erdale air­port, and tornado warn­ings were is­sued in Broward County and in the lower Keys.

In Key West, 60-year-old Carol Wal­ter­son Stroud sought refuge in a se­nior cen­ter with her hus­band, grand­daugh­ter and dog. The streets were nearly empty, shops were boarded up and the wind started to blow. “Tonight, I’m sweat­ing,” she said. “Tonight, I’m scared to death.”

On CNN, Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency chief Brock Long told res­i­dents of the Keys who chose not to evac­u­ate: "You're on your own un­til we can ac­tu­ally get in there, and it's safe for our teams to sup­port lo­cal and state ef­forts. The mes­sage has been clear — the Keys are go­ing to be im­pacted, there is no safe area within the Keys, and you put your life in your own hands by not evac­u­at­ing."

In one of the big­gest evac­u­a­tions ever or­dered in the United States, about 6.3 mil­lion peo­ple in Florida — more than a quar­ter of the state’s pop­u­la­tion — were warned to leave, and 540,000 were di­rected to clear out from the Ge­or­gia coast.

Gas short­ages and grid­lock plagued the evac­u­a­tions. Stretches of In­ter­states 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper.

Ma­jor tourist at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing Walt Dis­ney World, Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios and Sea World, all closed Satur­day. The Mi­ami and Fort Laud­erdale air­ports shut down, and those in Or­lando and Tampa planned to do the same later in the day.

Ray Scar­bor­ough and girl­friend Leah Et­manczyk left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north with her par­ents and three big dogs to stay with rel­a­tives in Or­lando. Scar­bor­ough was 12 when Hur­ri­cane An­drew hit in 1992 and re­mem­bers ly­ing on the floor in a hall as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house.

“They said this one is go­ing to be bigger than An­drew. When they told me that, that’s all I needed to hear,” said Scar­bor­ough, now a 37-year-old boat cap­tain. “That one tore ev­ery­thing apart.”

Some South Florida res­i­dents who fled Irma’s ex­pected wrath on the East Coast were re­lieved when the storm ap­peared to shift its track.

When Chan­dra Dio, 39, packed up and headed to Naples Fri­day morn­ing with her 19-year-old niece and two cats, she thought she was headed for an­other “hur­ri­ca­tion” — like last year when she fled the threat of Hur­ri­cane Matthew.

In­stead, Dio found her­self fac­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a di­rect hit. Within 24 hours she was on the road again, headed back to the Broward County sub­urb of Plan­ta­tion.

“I kind of laughed, but my niece was ter­ri­fied and cry­ing,” Dio said. “I went through a pack of cig­a­rettes this morn­ing and a pot of cof­fee … ev­ery­thing that could go wrong has gone wrong, like Mur­phy’s Law, but what are you go­ing to do?”

Of­fi­cials in Broward, north of Mi­ami, opened ex­tra shel­ters Fri­day to meet de­mand. On Satur­day, dozens of res­i­dents left to re­turn home.

Felt­gen, the hur­ri­cane cen­ter me­te­o­rol­o­gist, said the east coast of Florida is still in dan­ger, and feared that some were mis­in­ter­pret­ing forecasts that shifted Irma’s eye to­ward Tampa.

While Irma’s core likely won’t hit south­east Florida, he said, “that doesn’t mean we won’t have 20 inches of rain, storm surge. We’re go­ing to have a hur­ri­cane here.”

That in­cludes high winds — just not as high as what the west coast of the state will ex­pe­ri­ence.

Word be­gan to come from Cuba of se­vere dam­age. High winds from Irma up­ended trees, top­pled util­ity poles and scat­tered de­bris across streets. Roads were blocked, and wit­nesses said a pro­vin­cial mu­seum near the eye of the storm was re­duced to ru­ins.

Cuba's me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal agency re­ported that Irma came ashore overnight in cen­tral Ca­m­aguey prov­ince, home to the coun­try’s third-largest city, with winds so strong that they de­stroyed mea­sure­ment in­stru­ments.

“No one wants to leave the house, only si­lence is in­ter­rupted by gusts of wind and rain,” Yoani Sanchez, who runs a Ha­van­abased digital news ser­vice, 14ymedio, tweeted about the sit­u­a­tion in Ca­m­aguey.

In a week that saw three hur­ri­canes churn­ing in the At­lantic basin, Irma was the only im­me­di­ate threat Satur­day night.

The is­lands of St. Martin, St. Barts, An­guilla and Bar­buda, al­ready rav­aged by Irma, avoided a di­rect hit from Hur­ri­cane Jose, which moved off to the north. Hur­ri­cane Ka­tia dis­in­te­grated over east­ern Mex­ico on Satur­day.

GAS­TON DE CARDENAS/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Rough surf churned up by the ap­proach­ing hur­ri­cane dam­ages the docks at Whale Har­bour in the Florida Keys as winds and rain from the outer bands of Hur­ri­cane Irma ar­rive in Is­lam­orada, Fla. The storm was ex­pected to hit the Keys with full force this morn­ing.

CAROLYN COLE/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

The Ger­main Arena in Es­tero, Fla., be­came an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter to which thou­sands of peo­ple flocked on Satur­day morn­ing as Hur­ri­cane Irma ap­proached the area for a di­rect hit.

JOE RAE­DLE/GETTY IM­AGES

The outer bands of the hur­ri­cane reach the Mi­ami sky­line. Though Mi­ami is no longer in the di­rect path of the storm, it did not es­cape its force.

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