Irma, downgraded to tropical storm, sets sights on Alabama

Times Staff Report

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey preparing for Irma(@GovernorKayIvey Twitter)

As Floridians continued to ride out what used to be Hurricane Irma, their neighbors to the north, including here in Alabama, braced for impact in the likely path of what may still be a somewhat dangerous tropical storm.

Exactly what impact the state could expect when Tropical Storm Irma moves its way northwest, was unclear. But ahead of the storm’s arrival, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey activated emergency measures, shutdown many state offices, and school systems throughout the state announced closures.

“Due to the existing State of Emergency, Governor Ivey has directed that all state offices and buildings in the following counties be closed on Monday, September 11, 2017: Barbour, Blount, Bullock, Calhoun, Chambers, Cherokee, Clay, Cleburne, Coffee, Coosa, Dale, Elmore, Etowah, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Lee, Macon, Montgomery, Pike, Randolph, Russell, St. Clair, Talladega, Tallapoosa, and any other county hereafter placed under a Tropical Storm Warning by the National Weather Service,” a press release from Ivey’s office said. “Weather conditions are expected to be both extreme and severe and travel in many areas may be restricted. In all other counties, each state and local agency head is authorized to make closure determinations based on local weather conditions. The inherent uncertainty of a storm like Hurricane Irma means that agency heads should be vigilant in monitoring changing conditions.”

“Weather conditions are expected to be both extreme and severe and travel in many areas may be restricted. In all other counties, each state and local agency head is authorized to make closure determinations based on local weather conditions. The inherent uncertainty of a storm like Hurricane Irma means that agency heads should be vigilant in monitoring changing conditions.”

As Monday dawned Birmingham-based meteorologists expected the storm to pass into east Alabama (as well as Georgia and South Carolina) by early afternoon. Irma has already wreaked destruction throughout the Caribbean before making landfall in Florida, bringing high waves, torrential rain, flooding and strong winds. Hardest hit so far was the island of Barbuda whose residents were mostly evacuated safely, but after Irma are expected to find little to come back home to.

Hurricane Irma gave Florida a coast-to-coast pummeling with winds up to 130 mph Sunday, swamping homes and boats, knocking out power to millions and toppling massive construction cranes over the Miami skyline.

The 400-mile-wide (640-kilometer-wide) storm blew ashore in the mostly cleared-out Florida Keys, then marched up its western coast, its punishing winds extending clear across to Miami and West Palm Beach on the Atlantic side.

Irma’s core was nearing the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area early Monday, moving inland in a much-weakened state. While it arrived in Florida a Category 4 hurricane, by nightfall it was down to a Category 2 with winds of 100 mph (160 kph), only to be further downgraded as its eye continued moving inland. Meanwhile, more than 160,000 people waited in shelters statewide as Irma headed up the coast.

As many as five people were reported killed in Florida by midmorning Monday. In the Caribbean, at least 24 were people were killed during Irma’s destructive trek.

Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, said late Sunday that authorities had only scattered information about the storm’s toll, but he remained hopeful.

“I’ve not heard of catastrophic damage. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means it hasn’t gotten to us yet,” Koon said.

In the low-lying Keys, where a storm surge of over 10 feet (3 meters) was recorded, appliances and furniture were seen floating away, and Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark said the ocean waters were filled with navigation hazards, including sunken boats. But the full extent of Irma’s wrath there was not clear.

The county administrator, Roman Gastesi, said crews would begin house-to-house searches Monday to check on survivors. And an airborne relief mission, led by C-130 military cargo planes, was gearing up to bring emergency supplies to the Keys.

Storm surge was a big concern. The National Hurricane Center said a federal tide gauge in Naples reported a 7-foot (more than 2-meter) rise in water levels in just 90 minutes late Sunday.

Many streets were flooded in downtown Miami and other cities.

In downtown Miami, two of the two dozen construction cranes looming over the skyline collapsed in the wind. A third crane was reported down in Fort Lauderdale. No injuries were reported.

More than 3.3 million homes and businesses across the state lost power, and utility officials said it will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone. With officials and forecasters warning that the entire state of Florida was in danger, Irma set off one of the largest U.S. evacuations. Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to seek shelter elsewhere, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.

Many evacuees made their way north into Alabama, moving into hotels, motels and RV parks with their pets and whatever belongings they could bring with them. Gov. Ivey on Saturday authorized the activation of the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) in Clanton to level one and the activation of the Alabama National Guard (ALNG) for state active duty, due to the potential impact of Hurricane Irma and the state’s role in supporting additional neighboring state evacuees, officials said.

With tropical storm warnings and watches in place for much of Alabama, Ivey said the emergency measures were in place to tackle the worst Irma had to offer: “We have been watching Hurricane Irma very closely since it first formed in the Atlantic and as it continues to track further west,” Ivey said on Saturday.”I want to ensure that our people are in place to respond immediately to whatever Irma may bring our way. We are ready to protect the people of Alabama and those who have recently sought refuge in our state.” 

Federal authorities pledged their readiness to help as well. On Sunday, Ivey said she had received two telephone calls from Pres. Donald Trump promising that the U.S. government had Alabama “covered.”

This story has been updated to indicate reports of fatalities in Florida. The Associated Press contributed to this report.