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Heavy rains flood the streets of Florida David Goldman via AP

Irma downgraded to tropical storm but 6.2 million Florida homes lose electricity

Hurricane Irma hit Florida with winds of up to 210 kilometres per hour last night.

Updated at 5.05pm

A WEAKENED BUT still dangerous Hurricane Irma pushed inland in the United States today as it hammered Florida – leading to 6.2 million homes losing electricity.

While Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm over Florida, it still had winds near hurricane force. Its outer bands were also blowing into the state of Georgia, where the storm’s centre was expected to arrive later today.

With rough conditions persisting across Florida, many communities in Irma’s wake said they feared what destruction would be revealed as daylight allowed authorities to canvass neighbourhoods.

Storm surge flooding in downtown Jacksonville exceeded a record set during a 1964 hurricane by at least 1 foot, according to the US’s National Weather Service. A river gauge downtown in the Atlantic Coast city measured 3 feet above flood stage.

“Move to higher ground now,” the weather service warned people near the St Johns River.

[image alt="Hurricane Irma Florida" src="" width="296" height="191" class="alignnone" /end]


To the south, winds knocked a utility pole and power lines onto a sheriff’s cruiser late last night in Polk County, illustrating the dangerous conditions for emergency personnel. 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.

More than 120 homes were being evacuated early this morning in Orange County, just outside the city of Orlando, as floodwaters started to pour in.

Firefighters and the National Guard was going door-to-door and using boats to ferry families to safety. A few kilometres away, 30 others had to be evacuated when a 60-foot sinkhole opened up under an apartment building. No injuries were reported in either case.

In Redington Shores, west of Tampa, attorney Carl Roberts spent a sleepless night riding out Irma in his 17th floor beachfront condo. After losing power late last night, he made it through the worst of the storm shaken but unhurt.

“The hurricane winds lashed the shutters violently throughout the night, making sleep impossible,” he wrote in a text message.

As morning broke, he couldn’t open the electric shutters to see outside.

“It’s so dark in here,” he said.

[image alt="Hurricane Irma" src="" width="296" height="222" class="alignnone" /end]

Tropical storm downgrade

Around 6.2 million homes and businesses across Florida 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 earlier today.

Irma’s centre was about 170 kilometres per hour north of Tampa when forecasters announced it had weakened to a tropical storm. However, they warned its maximum sustained winds were 110 kilometres per hour, with higher gusts.

The monster storm, which arrived in Florida as a Category 4 hurricane, has toppled at least three construction cranes — two over downtown Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale.

People in the heavily populated Tampa-St Petersburg area had feared a first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, but the storm weakened to a Category 2 as it approached.

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 described downed power lines and other debris.

“What we feared the most was the surge,” he said today on MSNBC.

“The surge is yet to be finished.”

[image alt="Hurricane Irma" src="" width="296" height="156" class="alignnone" /end]

Rescue efforts

Meanwhile, rescue efforts ramped up in the evacuated neighbourhood near Orlando as Guardsmen in helmets and fatigues rolled through standing water in a high-clearance vehicle. Firefighters rescued a puppy from one of the homes there and leashed the anxious dog to the front of one of their trucks to give it water and snacks.

As the sun rose in Orlando, many tried to survey the damage, but authorities warned that conditions remain dangerous and asked people not to venture outside because of a curfew.

No deaths in Florida were immediately linked to the storm. In the Caribbean, at least 24 were people were killed during Irma’s destructive trek.

In one of the largest US evacuations, nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to seek shelter, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.

More than 200,000 people waited in shelters across Florida.

At Germain Arena, where thousands sought refuge south of Fort Myers, people sat amid puddles on the concrete floor this morning. Officials said the arena remained in one piece, but wind-driven water leaked in at the height of the storm.

Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, said last night that authorities had only scattered information about damage, but feared worse reports could come in today.

In the low-lying Keys, appliances and furniture were seen floating away. Authorities were set to begin house-to-house searches Monday to check on survivors.

About 30,000 people heeded orders to leave the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused.

John Huston, who stayed in his Key Largo home, watched his yard flood.

“Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” he said by text message.

“Shingles are coming off.”

Next, Irma is expected to push into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was cancelled in communities around the state.

Irma once was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, a Category 5 with a peak wind speed of 300 kilometres per hour. For days, forecasters warned Irma was taking dead aim at Florida.

Irma made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane yesterday morning at Cudjoe Key, not far from Key West. It then rounded Florida’s southwestern corner and hugged the coast closely as it pushed north.

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