Rescue efforts begin after Irma weakens

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A woman leaves her flooded home the morning after Hurricane Irma swept through the area. AFP

TAMPA/MIAMI (Reuters) –  Downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, Irma flooded several northern Florida cities with heavy rain and high storm surge yesterday as it headed out of the state after cutting power to millions and ripping roofs off homes.

Irma, once ranked as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic, hit a wide swathe of Florida over the past day, first making landfall on the Florida Keys archipelago and then coming ashore south of Naples and heading up the west coast.

The Cuban government reported yesterday that 10 people had been killed after Irma battered the island’s north coast with ferocious winds and 11-metre waves over the weekend. This raised the overall death toll from Irma’s powerful rampage through the Caribbean to 38.

The sheriff’s office in Jacksonville, on Florida’s northeast coast, reported it was making a rescue from waist-deep water yesterday morning and urged people to stay off unsafe roads. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the city, with nearby St Augustine also seeing flooding.

“Stay inside. Go up. Not out,” Jacksonville’s website warned residents. “There is flooding throughout the city and more rain is expected.”

After what she called a terrifying night bunkered in her house in St Petersburg, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, with her children and extended family, Julie Hally emerged with relief yesterday. The winds had toppled some large tree branches and part of a fence, but her house was undamaged.

“My heart just pounded out of my chest the whole time,” said Ms Hally, 37. “You hear stuff hitting your roof. It honestly sounds like somebody is just whistling at your window the whole night. It’s really scary.”

As officials and residents began to assess the damage around the state, Governor Rick Scott said he would travel last night to the keys

“I’ve heard there’s some significant damage, right where the eye of the storm hit,” Gov Scott told NBC’s Today show. “We’ll find out.”

A large military airborne relief operation was being prepared to take help to the islands, which are linked by a dramatic series of bridges and causeways from Key Largo almost 160km southwest to the city of Key West, Monroe County Emergency Director Martin Senterfitt said.

Miami, was spared the brunt of the storm but was still battered. Utility crews were already on the streets there clearing downed trees and utility lines. All causeways leading to Miami Beach were closed by police.

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