FORT MYERS, Fla./MIAMI – A weakening but still potent Hurricane Irma lashed Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sunday with tree-bending winds, pounding rain and surging surf, leaving millions of homes without power, while flooding streets and swaying skyscrapers across the state in Miami.
In storm-battered towns up and down Florida’s western shore – from Naples and Fort Myers north through Sarasota, Tampa and St. Petersburg – residents huddled with relatives, neighbors and pets to ride out a hurricane that had ranked as one of the Atlantic’s most powerful in a century.
Hurricane-force winds extended across portions of central Florida on Sunday night, the National Hurricane Center reported.
“I’ve lived here 21 years, and I never imagined we’d get a direct hit,” Shelli Connelly, 55, said as she stood on the sixth-floor balcony of her high-rise condo on Marco Island, where Irma made its second Florida landfall hours after barreling through the resort archipelago of the Florida Keys.
Opting to stay put with her four dogs rather than join evacuations, Connelly said the experience was “very scary.”
“You saw the doors moving, the chandeliers shaking. It was very loud,” she told Reuters as she watched the storm surge move in from the Gulf of Mexico following fierce winds that blew out windows in nearby buildings, stripped trees and slammed cars together in the parking lot below.
The storm killed at least 28 people as it raged through the Caribbean en route to Florida. On Sunday, Irma claimed its first U.S. fatality – a man found dead in a pickup truck that had crashed into a tree in high winds in the town of Marathon, in the Keys.
Officials in Orange County, which includes the central Florida resort city of Orlando, reported a U.S. second fatality, from a single-car crash that was apparently storm-related.
Irma’s center came ashore at Marco Island not long after it was downgraded to a Category 3 storm from a Category 4 on the five-point Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kph).
A few hours later, it was downgraded again to Category 2, with maximum sustained wind gusts of 110 mph (175 kph).