Hurricane Irma Swamps Miami as $200 Billion Threat Hits Land

Sep 20, 2017 5:46 pm ET

(Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Irma smashed into Florida as a powerful Category 4 storm, driving a wall of water and violent winds ashore and marking the first time since 1964 the U.S. was hit by back-to-back major hurricanes.

The storm’s eye moved over the lower Florida Keys at about 9 a.m. on Sunday with top winds of 130 miles (209 kilometers) per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. After Irma rakes Florida’s west coast, it may keep moving north across Georgia and Alabama.

The storm is so large that cities on the southern and eastern extremes of the state are being hit with surges and winds high enough to topple a crane in Miami, where the flooded Brickell financial district looked like a swift river. Hurricane-force winds extend 80 miles from its core and tropical storm-strength gales reach out 220 miles, which is about the same distance as between Boston and New York.

“We are about to get our own version of what hell looks like,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in a CNN interview.

Just over two weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck the heart of U.S. energy production in Texas, Irma is threatening another region with almost $200 billion worth of damage. Irma’s wrath has already roiled markets, sending insurance stocks plunging and orange juice futures surging. At least 1.6 million homes and businesses in Florida had lost power by noon, according to Rob Gould, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, the state’s biggest utility operator.

The storm’s path forced the largest evacuation in Miami-Dade County history and sent millions of Floridians fleeing. It’s the first major hurricane to hit Florida since Wilma in 2005 and has already laid waste to the small island of Barbuda, killed at least 25 people and left thousands homeless across the Caribbean.

The storm’s track along Florida’s west coast “is almost, if not, a worst-case scenario for Tampa Bay,” said Rob Miller, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “It shoves all the water into Tampa Bay and then shoves it right into downtown.”

Just before Irma’s landfall, Enki Research disaster modeler Chuck Watson said the storm’s trek up Florida’s coast could cost $192 billion and threatens $2 trillion of property. Total losses from Katrina reached $160 billion in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005.

Read more: How Science Links Climate Change to Irma’s Wallop: QuickTake Q&A

Irma is “easily on track to be the new No. 1 storm unless intensity collapses,” Watson said.

The system was about 65 miles south-southeast of Naples, Florida, and moving north 9 miles per hour, according to a 1 p.m. update. The storm could make a second landfall in Florida near Marco Island or Sarasota late Sunday and a third near Apalachicola in the state’s Panhandle region on Monday. By then, Irma may have weakened because of wind shear.

President Donald Trump described the hurricane as “a storm of enormous destructive power” while discussing preparations with his Cabinet.

In Miami, a crane collapsed in the downtown area and damaged a high-rise building, said Chuck Caracozza, a National Weather Service meteorologist there. Trees were down and there was storm surge damage, he said. Miami officials said in a news release that they were contacting neighbors and warning them to stay away from walls and windows near the crane, whose wreckage teetered over thin air.

Along flooded Brickell Avenue, side streets became tributaries and wind whipped up whitecaps on water coursing by office buildings in the financial district.

At the J.W. Marriott hotel in the neighborhood, guests were pulled into an emergency shelter in the fifth-floor ballroom as cell phones started beeping weather warnings. Hotel staff set up a video screen to play movies, provided board games and even a special room for pet care. Speakers played soothing lounge music, and a giant video screen cycled images of tropical beaches. 

Storm Surge

The Tampa Bay area may be hit with a worse storm surge because the continental shelf there is relatively shallow for as much as 90 miles offshore, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The last major hurricane to hit Tampa was in 1921, Masters said.

On the city’s Bayshore Boulevard, the waters of Tampa Bay had actually receded as much 200 feet Sunday morning. Detritus such as discarded beer cans and sea shells could be seen atop muddy sand that until recently had been covered by the water. 

Downtown, the commercial center, the port and cruise terminal were virtually deserted as rain increased and winds picked up. Buildings were fortified with boards over windows and three-foot walls of sandbags at the doors.

Geoff Rutland, 40, a lifelong Tampa resident, and his wife, D.J., decided to ride out the storm with five other families and a pastor in the Crossing Jordan Family Worship Center.

At an ice vending machine about a block away, there was a line as much as 30 deep. He helped others tie ice bags, fill coolers and keep calm. During a phone interview he repeatedly paused to refuse tips from those he helped.

"I’m not here for money,” he said. “I’m just here to help people."

In other storm news:

  • Irma may wipe out as much as 20 percent of the citrus crop in the world’s second-largest orange juice producer
  • Airlines have canceled 10,699 flights, according to air-traffic tracker FlightAware
  • Jose, the third major hurricane of the 2017 season, was passing well north of Puerto Rico with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles an hour and is expected to linger over the western Atlantic for several days
  • Hurricane Irma has caused $12.7 billion of damages across the Caribbean, according to German’s Center for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction
  • More than 4.4 million customers of the state’s two largest utilities may lose power, based on company forecasts Saturday.
  • NextEra shut a reactor at its Turkey Point nuclear plant and planned leave a second online given how the storm’s path has shifted.

--With assistance from Marvin G. Perez Erik Wasson Laura Litvan Jonathan Levin Ezra Fieser Jim Polson Mark Chediak Daniel Acker Terrence Dopp Nathan Crooks and Michael Smith

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.