Hurricane Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm this morning but is still producing strong wind gusts that are nearly hurricane force.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said crews were assessing the situation, but she added, “The damage from this storm is far greater than Hurricane Charley in 2004.”
In west Orange County, the National Guard and fire officials rescued 125 residents after storm waters flooded 136 homes near Livingston Street and Ronnie Circle, in the Orlo Vista neighborhood off Old Winter Garden Road south of Pine Hills, according to the county’s Emergency Operations Center. They were being taken to Gotha Middle School, a county shelter.
Conditions were still stormy through much of the Orlando area Monday morning. Jacobs urged people to stay inside and honor the curfew that is in effect until 6 p.m..
“The greatest danger to our citizens lies ahead of us, not behind us,’’ she said
The National Weather Service still reported winds of up to 43 mph and gusts of up to 69 mph near downtown Orlando this morning.
In Orange, Seminole, Lake and Osceola counties, nearly 750,000 homes and businesses, more than half of the customers, were without power as of 6 a.m., state officials said.
“As the day dawns across east central Florida, residents and visitors can expect to awaken to the sobering sight of widespread wind damage, which will be extensive in some areas,’’ read a statement from the National Weather Service in Melbourne. “The sheer magnitude of power outages across Florida is likely to be historical.’’
At 8 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said Irma’s center was about 30 miles north northeast of Cedar Key with winds of 70 mph. It was moving north northwest at 18 mph, heading toward the eastern Panhandle and into Georgia this afternoon.
Sustained winds in the Central Florida area reached 64 mph by 2 a.m., with gusts as high as 79 mph, the National Weather Service reported. Earlier the NWS had warned of gusts of up to 100 mph because of the storm’s inland turn.
At Orlando Executive Airport, winds were highest between about 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., with gusts topping out at about 70 miles mph.
A flood watch was still in effect for Central Florida until Monday evening. While the storm has mostly moved out of the area, an additional 2 to 4 inches of rain is expected north of Orlando and Cape Canaveral through Monday morning.
The National Weather Service stressed residents should not begin recovery efforts until the winds subside and crews clear roadways. Many deaths and injuries, it said, take place during the initial phase of recovery.
Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, said there were nearly 1 million customers without power in Miami-Dade County alone.
At least three people were killed in crashes during the storm, in addition to the 24 people who were killed in the Caribbean.
In Orange County, a driver died after a car struck a guardrail on State Road 417 Sunday evening. At least 10 other crashes were reported in Central Florida following the curfew at 7 p.m.
There were reports of downed power lines and trees in neighborhoods such as Thornton Park and College Park in Orlando.
Near Apopka Vineland Road and State Road 50, a 30-by-60-foot sinkhole opened up near an apartment complex on Sherwood Terrace, forcing the evacuation of 30 residents. About 30 percent of the structure was damaged, officials said. Half of the residents opted to stay in the complex’s clubhouse, while the rest decided to shelter with friends.
The Orlando Fire Department began responding to calls at 5 a.m., catching up on overnight dispatches put on hold from high winds.
On the way to a fire alarm call at the Kinneret Apartments on Delaney Ave., firefighters had to reroute around the flooded intersection at Lucerne Circle. Water came up to the tops of tires on cars parked in the area.
The alarm was falsely triggered, and had been sounding since about 1 a.m. by the firefighters arrived to shut it off about 6 a.m.
Downed tree limbs and glass from broken-out windows littered the streets of downtown Orlando. Firefighters at Station 1 were called to Harry Buffalo in to 50 block of Church Street, where a gas-powered lantern out front had broken off. They shut off the propane to stop it from leaking.
In Lake County, government and residents posting to social media sites shared accounts of the damage, mainly from fallen trees.
The Umatilla Inn and Restaurant on State Road 19 appeared to sustain significant damage Sunday night from what some residents were convinced was a tornado. But many residents indicated Irma wasn’t bad as they feared.
“Tavares is still on the map,” wrote one person on the Tavares Word of Mouth Facebook site.
Still, people realized it wasn’t over yet.
“Winds still screaming out here off of Shirley Shores [Road],” read another post.
“Dora Canal still rocking and rollin,” added a resident.
On Leesburg’s Word of Mouth site, a person spoke for many in Central Florida: “Just can’t wait for it to be over.”
Many described being frightened as high winds howled outside.
“My kids didn’t leave the closet for hours,” one parent wrote.”Bunkered in bathroom,” another resident wrote.
US Highway 441 and Lake County Road 44, two heavily traveled roadways in Lake, were desolate this morning. Both were dark and strewn with twigs and some shingles, but passable in both directions.
One sheriff’s vehicle sped toward Mount Dora about 6:30 am without flashing lights but shining a spotlight. Flooded roadside gulleys spilled onto the road shoulders.
Power was out east of Tavares, which lost electricity only briefly Sunday night.
In Polk County, a Sheriff’s Office Sergeant and a paramedic became trapped for two hours in a Polk County Sheriff’s Office patrol car Sunday night after a live power pole and electric lines fell on it while driving on Lakeland Hills Boulevard in Lakeland. Lakeland Electric crews responded and were able to free them.
The hurricane also led to major closures at the state’s airports.
Miami International Airport has announced it will be closed Monday and begin only limited flights on Tuesday.
Orlando International Airport closed Saturday and won’t reopen to passenger traffic until after Hurricane Irma has passed, a damage assessment has been completed, necessary recovery efforts made and the airlines are consulted to determine when best to resume operations.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport says on its website it has no timetable yet to reopen. Its last flights were Friday.
Tampa International Airport also is closed as Hurricane Irma moves up the Florida peninsula.
Airlines are preparing their recovery schedules, which may take several days to execute.
At least 24 people died in Anguilla, Barbuda, the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, St. Barts, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Among them was a 2-year-old boy swept away when his home flooded.
Residents have reported shortages of food, water and medicine, and many have complained of looting.
The U.S. government said it was sending a flight Monday to evacuate its citizens from one of the hardest hit islands, St. Martin. Evacuees were warned to expect long lines and no running water at the airport.
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