But as the sun rose Monday, floodwaters in Florida quickly receded, and torn off roofs, tree-damaged homes and toppled boats were limited to isolated pockets of the state.
Hurricane Irma is blamed for killing at least 40 people across the Caribbean. Just two deaths in Florida were reported by state officials Monday.
“I didn’t see the damage I thought I would see,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said after an aerial tour of the island chain of the Keys, which were hit by the Category Four storm early Saturday.
One of the most alarming warnings had to do with storm surge — a wall of water that rushes over land during a hurricane and often kills far more people than the wind.
In the end, the surge was “not as bad as we thought,” Scott added.
Part of the reason Florida escaped the worst had to do with the path of the storm, meteorologists said.
Hurricane Irma razed the northern coast of Cuba as a potent Category Five storm on its way toward Florida, losing some of its strength in the process.
Its westward shift, away from Miami, also spared the coastal tourist haven from the its fearsome right-front quadrant, packing the highest winds and surge potential.
“The storm surge flooding in Miami is a mere fraction of what would have happened if the core of the storm had been further east,” tweeted Rick Knabb, former director of the National Hurricane Center and currently an expert on the Weather Channel.
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With weather forecasters warning of the impact to Florida a full week in advance, many people took time to shutter their windows and take to highways in search of safer ground.
Five and six days out, Irma looked set to charge up the east coast of Florida. In the last day or two, suddenly the Gulf Coast was bracing for the worst.
This uncertainty was unsurprising from a meteorological standpoint, said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
“We are way better than we used to be but we are nowhere near where we could be,” he told AFP.
Despite fuel shortages and traffic bottlenecks, Florida somehow managed to evacuate six million people from the vulnerable coasts — a far larger exodus than any other storm in recent memory.
“The evacuation went more smoothly than I thought it was going to go,” Redlener added.
While plenty of Floridians chose to shelter in place, the evacuations likely saved lives and kept first responders out of harm’s way.
Dennis Jones, chief of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, which includes the city of Tampa, said he was “thankful” for those who left dangerous areas, noting that 260 people had called 911 in the thick of the storm, when emergency crews could not respond.
All those calls were resolved without incident by early Monday, he said.