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Sunday: Hurricane Irma weakening as it approaches Tampa Bay

The Interstate remains empty as the outer bands of Hurricane Irma reached South Florida early Saturday. Meanwhile, Hillsborough County officials discussed the latest track and evacuation plans.
[David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP]
The Interstate remains empty as the outer bands of Hurricane Irma reached South Florida early Saturday. Meanwhile, Hillsborough County officials discussed the latest track and evacuation plans.
[David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP]
Published Sep. 11, 2017

Hurricane Irma continues to make its northward trek toward Tampa Bay after making its second landfall Sunday afternoon.

Despite the unwelcome tidings of the landfall for residents of southwest Florida, subsequent NHC updates contained some measure of good news: Irma had weakened from a Category 3 to a Category 2 storm.

As of 11 p.m., Irma was a Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds and moving north at 14 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was located 50 miles southeast of Tampa.

Irma still poses a serious statewide threat to Floridians, with forecasts showing its eye headed for a collision course with the eastern Tampa Bay area sometime late tonight. But NHC forecasters said Sunday night the storm had weakened significantly since it initially made landfall in the state early this morning.

Just before 4 p.m., the storm made its second Floridian landfall in Marco Island, about seven hours after Irma hit Cudjoe Key in the Florida Keys.

Related: FOLLOW THE TAMPA BAY TIMES LIVE COVERAGE OF HURRICANE IRMA

The NHC also reported that hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 80 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 415 miles out. Storm surge warnings were in effect for the Florida Keys and Tampa Bay as of 11 p.m.

Related Coverage: Rain and wind begin to set in as Tampa, St. Petersburg set curfews

DOWNLOAD: Get the tbo Weather App and see where storms are headed

Earlier this week, forecasters expected Irma to ravage Florida's east coast. The more westerly track the storm took will heighten the storm surge risk across the Tampa Bay region, forecasters said.

If the surge occurs at high tide, areas in Tampa Bay — from Ana Maria Island to Clearwater Beach — could experience 5 to 8 feet of storm surge.

Forecasters warned of storm surge as high as 15 feet (4.5 meters).

"This is going to sneak up on people," said Jamie Rhome, head of the hurricane center's storm surge unit.

LIVE RADAR: Interactive storm track, hourly outlooks, 10-day forecasts and weather alerts

SOUTH FLORIDA FEELING BRUNT

Irma had already made its presence known across South Florida, causing more than three million power outages statewide and lashing major population centers with rain and wind. The danger is only just beginning, forecasters warn, because the storm will grind along Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday and could make a second landfall later in the day.

The hurricane center warned earlier today that Irma, which hit the Keys as a category 3 storm, has created an "imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding along much of the Florida west coast."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the state's evacuation zones Saturday that "this is your last chance to make a good decision." About 6.4 million people were told to flee.

"A very dangerous day is unfolding in the Florida Keys and much of West Florida," Brennan said. "It certainly could inundate the entire island. That's why everyone in the Keys was urged so strongly to evacuate."

Irma spent much of Sunday morning over the Florida Keys, the string of islands off the state's southern coast. The Keys could see up to 25 inches of rainfall and storm surges could wash over the low-lying chain, a popular tourist destination that includes Key West.

Forecasters said the greater Miami area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of 4 to 6 feet.

PINELLAS COUNTY: Residents need to be in a safe place now

STORM OF HISTORIC PROPORTIONS

Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph) last week. It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean and as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico's bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, it was expected to regain strength.

Meteorologists predicted Irma would plow into the Tampa Bay area Monday morning. The area has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 130,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now around 3 million people live there.

Given its mammoth size and strength and its course up the peninsula, it could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida, and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.

Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.

[National Hurricane Center — Tap to enlarge]

WEST COAST THREAT

The latest course also still threatened Naples' mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center's retirement homes, and Sanibel Island's shell-filled beaches.

Irma's course change caught many off guard and triggered a major round of last-minute evacuations in the Tampa area. Many businesses had yet to protect windows with plywood or hurricane shutters. Some locals grumbled about the forecast, even though Florida's west coast had long been included in the zone of probability.

"For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we're now told it's coming up the west coast," said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. "As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid."

Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and the latest projections could shift again, sparing or savaging other parts of the state.

At Germain Arena not far from Fort Myers, on Florida's southwestern corner, thousands waited in a snaking line for hours to gain a spot in the hockey venue-turned-shelter.

"We'll never get in," Jamilla Bartley lamented in the parking lot.

The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.

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