Hurricane Irene--the storm that reminded Floridians the hurricane season is not over--barreled ashore this afternoon near the thinly populated southwest tip of the state. But it brought blustery winds, heavy downpours, widespread power outages, and threats of serious flash-flooding to hundreds of thousands of residents from Daytona Beach to Miami to Tampa and Orlando.
Five pedestrians were reported killed in Broward County by downed electrical lines, and authorities warned residents to stay indoors even as Florida Power & Light officials acknowledged that it might take at least 24 hours before power is restored to 1.4 million customers who are in the dark.
Earlier, six other deaths were blamed on Irene--two in Cuba and four in the Bahamas, Reuters reported. The storm pummeled Cuba's western regions on Thursday, felling trees and power lines and turning streets into giant pools, before skirting past the Florida Keys earlier today.
Irene, which had been brewing in the southwest Caribbean for five days, packed maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, or minimal hurricane strength, as it struck near Cape Sable. But gusts topping 100 mph were recorded at Big Pine Key, hurricane forecasters said, and 77-mph winds were clocked in Miami.
People in heavily populated Miami-Dade and Broward counties on the southeast coast had not actively prepared for a storm of such intensity, but the area bore the brunt of Irene's high winds and heavy rains. Aside from electrical outages, there were scores of flooded streets, and the evening commute was a nightmare, since most businesses and schools had not closed today in anticipation of the storm.
The storm brought heavy deluges to much of south and central Florida, and as much as 18 inches of rain in some areas. "It is a major rainmaker," said Stephen Baig of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, who added that the soggy impact might be felt as far away as New England over the next several days.
In Key West, the fabled resort that was walloped by Hurricane Georges on Sept. 25, 1998, residents were grateful to find little damage. "I was born and raised here, and believe me, this was a breeze. I don't think the winds got up past 50 mph," said Key West resident Debi Chalmers, who recalled that her house ceiling "fell on my shoulders" when Georges struck last year.
Here in Naples on the lower southwest coast, which hurricane forecasters had picked as one of Irene's major targets, the worst seemed to be over early, said Collier County emergency management director Ken Pineau. Only a little over an inch of rain was recorded here, and the strongest winds were clocked at 48 mph.
At 11 p.m., a hurricane warning was dropped as Irene, with 75-mph winds that were just above minimal hurricane strength, moved toward Cape Canaveral, where forecasters said it would move into the Atlantic. They predicted it could come ashore again at the Georgia-South Carolina border. It was on a path that could bring more misery to North Carolina, which was inundated last month by rains from Hurricane Floyd.
"The heavy rains will continue, and flooding--that's the big threat," said meteorologist Robert Molleda of the National Hurricane Center.