Irma spares Tampa Bay, other parts of the state not as lucky

A tree down came down but missed this 1920s home at 738 Seventh St. N in the Historic Uptown neighborhood of St. Petersburg. Damage became apparent with the light of day Monday morning.
A tree down came down but missed this 1920s home at 738 Seventh St. N in the Historic Uptown neighborhood of St. Petersburg. Damage became apparent with the light of day Monday morning.
Published Sept. 11, 2017

Monday's blustery daybreak brought relief — albeit cautious relief — across the Tampa Bay area.

Hurricane Irma downed trees and power lines and knocked the canopies off some gas stations, but seemingly spared the region the catastrophic damage that had been predicted.

"A glancing blow," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who had previously warned Irma would "punch us in the face."

From north Brooksville to the Pinellas beaches, weary residents stepped outside for a first look at the damage.

"I feel lucky," said Jeremy Jackson, 42, who found tree limbs scattered in the yard of his St. Petersburg home, but no major damage. "We were prepared for a direct hit and to be without power for days."

The Tampa Bay region benefited from a late shift in Irma's track. The most powerful winds skirted to the east of the region.

While not the Category 5 monster some feared, Irma still left behind a trail of destruction as it climbed the state Sunday. It killed at least two people and demolished buildings in the Florida Keys where it made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, chewed shingles off structures in Everglades City, crippled cranes in downtown Miami and raised alarms of historic flooding in Jacksonville.

Much of Irma's toll was still unclear late Monday morning. Nearly 60 percent of the state remained without power, according to the state Division of Emergency Management. And tens of thousands of evacuees had yet to return home to check for flooding, blown windows or broken fences.

What's more, Richard Rude of the National Weather Service warned, as the storm charges north, winds will turn, pushing water up onto the beaches. Additional storm surge of a few feet was expected with the arrival of high tide, between 5 and 7 p.m.

"This is not over,'' said Kevin Guthrie, Pasco's assistant county administrator for public safety, about 8:30 a.m.

Pinellas County

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sealed the county until 9:30 a.m., so law enforcement officers could scope out the damage.

A few hours before daybreak, Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Lonnie Redmon drove along pitch-black, empty streets on the county's sealed-off barrier islands for an early glimpse at what the storm left behind.

A power pole broken in half. A downed tree wrapped in power lines blocking the Tom Stuart Causeway. A Citgo station with a toppled canopy and uprooted pumps.

On St. Pete Beach, Keith Overton, the president of TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, said he had watched Irma rip pieces of the roof from the nearby Howard Johnson and blow them all the way to the beach. But in the morning light, the sands were hardly littered.

Farther south, deputies found a yacht, broken from its mooring, scraping up against a bridge leading to Pass-a-Grille.

At a mobile home park on U.S. 19, siding from one trailer crashed into a pickup, shattering the windshield. Several awnings went missing overnight.

"Other than that," resident Donald Ulmer said, "outstanding."

In Woodlawn, two giant sycamore trees crashed to the road at 23rd Avenue N and 12th Street. A home on 22nd Avenue N sustained major damage. In the Old Northeast the streets were passable. No water surged across Coffee Pot Boulevard. Along a clean Fourth Street, police cruisers outnumbered cars.

On a drive down Central Avenue, a reporter didn't spot a single broken window.

Hillsborough and the North Suncoast

In several neighborhoods, the refrain from gawkers was the same: We lucked out. Tropical storms in the past decade have done more damage.

Streets were all but clear in Old Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights. Streetlights were out along east Tampa's 22nd Street N, but power was on at a nearby storm shelter. Palm fronds and a few overturned trash cans littered Ybor City's Seventh Avenue. Still, the district's historic sights remained intact, down to the iconic lamp posts.

Downtown Tampa, while a ghost town, seemed unaffected.

Low-lying Palmetto Beach dodged a bullet. The seawall held McKay Bay offshore with 2 feet to spare as the sun began to peek through the quick-moving clouds.

South Tampa residents reported that even Bayshore Boulevard hadn't flooded.

In the Providence Lakes neighborhood in Brandon, local lakes were so full that water pooled at knee height on the roads. Still, power remained.

Hillsborough County officials counted no deaths or major injuries and very little property damage. In fact, water levels Monday morning were below normal, though officials said the Little Manatee River may flood.

The Alafia River had flooded roads and was as high as street signs in some areas. The water was moving quickly and threatening more than a dozen homes.

"Everyone knows that thing was barreling towards us," County Administrator Mike Merrill said. "We really have a lot to be grateful for."

Pasco and Hernando counties saw much of the same, though flooding is predicted for both the Anclote River in Elfers and the Withlacoochee River in Trilby later this week.

"You have to get out now,'' said Guthrie, the Pasco public safety official. "You've got a day.''

Naples hit; Keys slammed; Jacksonville flooded

In other parts of the state, the damage was more immediate.

A surge of 7 feet in 90 minutes was reported at the Naples airport. South of the city, alligators and banded water snakes slid through the rising gray tide on the flooded Tamiami Trail, another hazard among the power lines.

Residents who left the small towns of Everglades City and Chokoloskee couldn't get back in.

Thomas Schramm, 52, had slept only two hours. At dawn Monday, he sat in his truck with his wife and dog at the end of a flooded road. Friends in Chokoloskee had sent them videos of the storm, the surge of water pushing up to door handles.

"There's nothing you can do," Schramm said. "Just wait for the tide to come down."

Across Alligator Alley, many streets were flooded in downtown Miami and other cities. And an apparent tornado spun off by Irma destroyed six mobile homes in Palm Bay, nearly 200 miles north along the state's Atlantic coast.

In downtown Jacksonville, officials braced for a storm surge of more than 4 feet — exceeding the record set during Hurricane Dora in 1964 and potentially causing water to rise to 5 feet in several neighborhoods.

The weather service asked residents there to leave for higher ground.

Of total deaths and destruction in the Florida Keys, officials could not yet say.

Reports emerged Sunday of a potential "humanitarian crisis" in the Keys, but Florida Director of Emergency Management Bryan Koon said late Sunday that officials still lacked a clear picture of the damage. Rescue efforts were to begin at first light today. An estimated 10,000 people remained in the Keys, despite all-caps warnings that said Irma was "AS REAL AS IT GETS."

News was slow to emerge from the Keys as the storm silenced communication.

"It is obvious we need to get in there," Koon said.

Staff writers C.T. Bowen, Jay Cridlin, Caitlin Johnston, Mary Ellen Klas, Laura C. Morel, Adam Playford, Luis Santana, Zachary T. Sampson, Langston Taylor and Thomas C. Tobin contributed reporting.