Hurricane Irma downgraded to tropical depression, moves through Georgia

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The National Hurricane Center says Irma has weakened into a tropical depression. (WLS)

Authorities sent an aircraft carrier and other Navy ships to help with search-and-rescue operations in Florida on Monday as a flyover of the hurricane-battered Keys yielded what the governor said were scenes of devastation.

The National Hurricane Center said Irma had weakened into a tropical depression as of Monday night, though it was still bringing heavy rain to the U.S. Southeast.

Irma is expected to drop 2 to 5 inches of rain across South Carolina and northern portions of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Irma's top sustained winds are 35 mph (55 kph), and it is moving northwest at 15 mph (24 kph).

The hurricane center has discontinued all storm surge and tropical storm warnings.


"I just hope everyone survived," Gov. Rick Scott said.

He said boats were cast ashore, water, sewers and electricity were knocked out, and "I don't think I saw one trailer park where almost everything wasn't overturned." Authorities also struggled to clear the single highway connecting the string of islands to the mainland.

The Keys felt Irma's full fury when the storm blew ashore as a Category 4 hurricane Sunday morning with 130 mph (209 kph) winds. How many people in the dangerously exposed, low-lying islands defied evacuation orders and stayed behind was unclear.

As the storm weakened into a tropical storm and finally left Florida on Monday after a run up the entire 400-mile length of the state, the full scale of its destruction was still unknown, in part because of cut-off communications and blocked roads.

Florida emergency management officials estimated nearly 12.5 million residents remain without power. The updated number came during a briefing on Monday evening at the state's emergency management center in Tallahassee.

Hurricane and Tropical Storm Irma has left 62 percent of customers without power. Of the 6.5 million reported outages, nearly a third are in South Florida. Nineteen of Florida's 67 counties report more than 100,000 outages.

The biggest outages are in Miami-Dade County (801,648) followed by Broward (629,134) and Palm Beach (505,520). Hendry County in the southwest part of the state is the only county listing 100 percent outages.

Six deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with three in Georgia and one in South Carolina. At least 35 people were killed in the Caribbean.

Statewide, an estimated 13 million people, or two-thirds of Florida's population, remained without power. That's more than the population of New York and Los Angeles combined. Officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.

More than 180,000 people huddled in shelters in the Sunshine State.

"How are we going to survive from here?" asked Gwen Bush, who waded through thigh-deep floodwaters outside her central Florida home to reach National Guard rescuers and get a ride to a shelter. "What's going to happen now? I just don't know."

The governor said it was way too early to put a dollar estimate on the damage.

During its march up Florida's west coast, Irma swamped homes, uprooted trees, flooded streets, snapped miles of power lines and toppled construction cranes.

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Here's a look at Hurricane Irma's impact in Florida.

In a parting shot, it triggered severe flooding around Jacksonville in the state's northeastern corner. It also spread misery into Georgia and South Carolina as it moved inland with winds at 50 mph, causing flooding and power outages.

Around the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where Irma rolled through early Monday, damage appeared modest. And the governor said damage on the southwest coast, including in Naples and Fort Myers, was not as bad as feared. In the Keys, though, he said "there is devastation."

"It's horrible, what we saw," Scott said. "I know for our entire state, especially the Keys, it's going to be a long road."

He said the Navy dispatched the USS Iwo Jima, USS New York and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to help with search and rescue and other relief efforts.

Emergency managers in the islands declared on Monday "the Keys are not open for business" and warned that there was no fuel, electricity, running water or cell service and that supplies were low and anxiety high.

"HELP IS ON THE WAY," they promised on Facebook.

The Keys are linked by 42 bridges that have to be checked for safety before motorists can be allowed in, officials said. The governor said the route also needs to be cleared of debris and sand, but should be usable fairly quickly.

In the Jacksonville area, close to the Georgia line, storm surge brought some of the worst flooding ever seen there, with at least 46 people pulled from swamped homes.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office warned residents along the St. Johns River to "Get out NOW."

"If you need to get out, put a white flag in front of your house. A t-shirt, anything white," the office said on its Facebook page. "Search and rescue teams are ready to deploy."

A tornado spun off by Irma was reported on the Georgia coast, and firefighters inland had to rescue several people after trees fell on their homes.

A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state. More than 100,000 customers were without power in Georgia and over 80,000 in South Carolina.

Over the next two days, Irma is expected to push to the northwest, into Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

People in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area had braced for the first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. But by the time Irma arrived in the middle of the night Monday, its winds were down to 100 mph (161 kph) or less.

"When that sun came out this morning and the damage was minimal, it became a good day," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

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American students studying on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten weathered the absolute destruction of Hurricane Irma.

Only 10 days ago, Heather Langer and Manpreet Mahal didn't even know each other. Now the first year medical students are great friends after living through Hurricane Irma together. The storm his four days after they arrived in the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten to attend the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine.

"People risked their lives to save others, it was a very eye-opening experience to see how selfless others could be in a time of need," Mahai said.

"I put aside any fear and anxiety I had about the storm and went into work mode," said Langer.

As a former EMT, Langer volunteered to be part of a team to provide medical help. She worked nonstop until the U.S. military helped evacuated dozens of American students over the weekend. Staying in a Naperville hotel, they know they're lucky to survive. But Langer and Mahai worry about the beautiful, and now destroyed, island they left behind.

"Windows gone, doors blown off hinges, you could see all the way through people's houses to the back," Langer said.

"They are very resilient, warm people and they need help. I just hope word gets out and they send aid to Sint Maarten," Mahai said.

Naperville native and second-year medical student Madhura Mahapatra is relieved to be home. She said apart from the medical school campus, Sint Maarten is unrecognizable.

"There is glass shattered everywhere, mattresses hanging out of buildings. It looks like something in a Hollywood movie," she said.

The medical school continues to work evacuating the remaining students left behind, as well as their pets. It is doubtful the students will be able to return to the Caribbean campus any time soon. The school is working on a U.S. location so the aspiring doctors can start or continue their education.


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As Irma moves through Georgia and the Carolinas, some find themselves stranded in Chicago while others are thankful to finally be home.

Some have just returned home to Chicago after getting caught in Irma's strongest and deadliest winds, while others came out to the city for a visit and are stuck here until the storm passes and they can go home.

Illinois State Senator Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) was vacationing in Sint Maarten as Irma devastated the island.

"I prayed and prayed, and I said, 'Lord, take care of my daughter, because I don't think I'm going to get through this.' It was a really scary moment," she said.

And as Irma lashes the southeast, some football fans have Georgia on their minds. They flew in for Saturday's Georgia vs. Notre Dame game, and now their stay has been extended. But just because they're stuck doesn't mean they're sad.

"Absolutely. And if most of them are like us, we're loving it. We're glad we're here," said Georgia fan Robert Kinney.

But for others, waiting at O'Hare, it's been a long and frustrating day.

"We were supposed to fly out at 6 a.m. this morning. They moved us to 1:30. That got canceled as well," said Jeff Cabral, who was trying to fly to Atlanta.

"Our wives are very upset with us because they're without power right now. I've got a 2-year-old. He's got three kids," said Rhythm Rogers, trying to fly to Atlanta.

And on the North Side, some local residents filled a truck with donated items for storm victims. It will leave for Florida Tuesday morning.

"I just thought to myself I cannot be sitting on the couch, waiting and seeing people struggle down there," said Mauricio Romy, who organized the donations and relief effort.

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The common theme coming out of Florida Monday can be summed up in one word: relieved.

The common theme coming out of Florida Monday can be summed up in one word: relieved. Several former Chicagoans who rode out Irma came through the storm safely, with nerves slightly frayed but grateful for the relatively benign outcome.

From Miami to Tampa Bay, a collective sigh of relief. For all the material damage left behind by Irma, for all the millions of people without power, there is also a sense of a bullet dodged and the knowledge it could have been so much worse.

"It's terrifying when you have the wind blowing and it's howling, and then you heard these little noises. The palm trees in front of my house, banging up against the gutters," said Rick Feliciano.

Feliciano, a Chicago transplant, lives in Broward County. His neighborhood is mostly intact, although there is no running water and a curfew is still in place.

"I'm exhausted. I've been cleaning up all morning. Got up early in the in the morning to assess the damages, and I got a palm tree down in my yard, I got some fences down," he said.

It was also a long night for 75-year-old Diane Cascone and her 82-year-old husband Russ, who isn't mobile and has the beginnings of dementia. Formerly of Oak Lawn, the couple now lives just north of Tampa. Unable to get a ride to a local shelter they rode out the hurricane at home, right in the middle of the evacuation zone.

Tampa was saved at the last minute from what was expected to be a catastrophic event.

"The street all around here was, it was just like a river. There was no sidewalk," Cascone said. "We were just waiting, putting flashlights and candles out there and everything, and hoping it wouldn't get any further. I don't know what I would have done trying to get him out anywhere."

Not as fortunate, however, were the residents of Naples, Fla., where Irma made its second landfall. Tom Sturgulewski, a retired Elk Grove Village police officer who now works with the Naples Police Department, was on the job starting Sunday night to help.

"A lot of trees down and wires down. Some of the older homes lost roofs," Sturgulewski said.

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With millions without power in Florida, crews are ready to begin to help the state recover from Hurricane Irma.

With millions without power in Florida, crews are ready to begin to help the state recover from Hurricane Irma.

C-130's are arriving in Marathon Key Monday. The airlift missions will transport ground search and assessment teams to provide help and assess needs.

More than 32,000 federal responders, which includes the National Guard, are at the ready.

Once the tropical storm force winds die down, FEMA will move in and officials will complete damage assessments, which will take about two days.

President Donald Trump, over the weekend, expressed confidence in the federal response.

"The bad news is that this is some big monster, but I think we're very well coordinated," Trump said.

Once the storm clears, the priority is to restore damaged substations and transmission lines, then hospitals and waste water treatment centers and then neighborhoods.

Chicago ComEd crews will be helping out. Com-ED is sending nearly 700 workers to Florida. All of them volunteered to help.

WLS-TV contributed to this report

Related Topics:
weatheru.s. & worldhurricane irmahurricaneFlorida
(Copyright ©2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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