A weakened but still dangerous Irma pushed inland today as it hammered Florida with winds and floodwaters that created hazards even for rescuers trying to help beleaguered residents.
Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm over Florida, but it still had winds near hurricane force. Its outer bands were also blowing into Georgia, where the storm's center was expected to arrive later in the day. With rough conditions persisting across Florida, many communities in Irma's wake feared what destruction would be revealed as daylight allowed authorities to canvass neighborhoods.
Winds knocked a utility pole and power lines onto a sheriff's cruiser late yesterday in Polk County east of Tampa, illustrating the dangerous conditions for emergency personnel.
A deputy and a paramedic, who had just escorted an elderly patient to safety, were trapped for two hours until a crew could free them. Both were unhurt.
And more than 120 homes were being evacuated early today in Orange County, just outside the city of Orlando, as floodwaters started to pour in.
Firefighters and the National Guard were going door-to- door and using boats to ferry families to safety. A few miles away, 30 others had to be evacuated when a 60-foot sinkhole opened up under an apartment building. No injuries were reported in either case.
In Redington Shores west of Tampa, attorney Carl Roberts spent a sleepless night riding out Irma in his 17th floor beachfront condo. After losing power late Sunday, he made it through the worst of the storm shaken but unhurt.
"The hurricane winds lashed the shutters violently, throughout the night," he wrote in a text message, "making sleep impossible."
As morning broke, he couldn't open the electric shutters to see outside.
"It's so dark in here," he said.
Nearly 4.5 million homes and businesses across Florida lost power, and utility officials said it will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone. More than 100,000 were in the dark in Georgia.
Irma's center was about 105 miles (170 km) north of Tampa when forecasters announced it had weakened to a tropical storm. However, they warned its maximum sustained winds were 70 mph (110 kph), with higher gusts.
The monster storm, which arrived in Florida as a Category 4 hurricane, has toppled at least three constructions cranes - two over downtown Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale.
People in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area had feared a first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, but the storm weakened to a Category 2 as it approached.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the situation was not as bad as it could have been, but warned residents that dangerous storm surge continued. He also described downed power lines and other debris.
"What we feared the most was the surge," he said today on MSNBC. "The surge is yet to be finished.