As Irma’s eye began moving across the Florida Keys, the storm gathered intensity in Miami, tearing signs from their foundations, downing power lines, ripping trees from their roots and whipping the huge cranes that dot the Miami skyline around in precarious circles.
Water from Biscayne Bay was already flooding into the street in Brickell and central Miami, making roads impassable. Rivers and lakes were overflowing — and that was before the full force of the storm hit.
Most buildings and houses were shrouded in darkness, streetlights were out, and police officers and National Guard troops were hunkered down like everyone else.
With the power out for hundreds of thousands of people across South Florida, there was no television to keep them updated and only the power left on their phones to keep them in touch with the world.
The storm was expected to batter the city for hours, and many people who had evacuated to hotels and other places of safety found themselves without air-conditioning but with windows shut tight, an atmosphere that quickly became claustrophobic.
Many in Miami expressed relief on Saturday as the path of the storm veered toward the west coast. But as they awoke to the sounds of snapping trees and exploding transformers, the mood shifted.
People rechecked their supplies.
“I told my daughter, Emily, ‘Now it gets real,’” said Angel Quirindongo, 31. “I told her, ‘Now one piece of bread, later a piece of bread, and save what you really want.’”
Although Mr. Quirindongo lives in the city, he was riding out the storm at the Element Hotel, near Miami International Airport, where he works for American Airlines. He was a child when Hurricane Andrew hit, and he said he remembered going weeks without power. It was not a pleasant experience, he added.
“This one doesn’t know,” he said, motioning to Emily, his 13-year-old daughter.
By 7:15 a.m., the hotel had barricaded the doors with sandbags, and nobody was allowed in or out. Emergency lights flashed and the generator was being used only to power a limited number of lights in the lobby.
People emerged from their crowded rooms bleary-eyed, children and pets by their side, and they snacked on fruit and coffee provided by the hotel while wind and rain pounded the windows. The palm trees outside bent to breaking point, and frequent lightning strikes lit up the sky.
While her father was calm and collected, Emily said she had never been through a major hurricane. “It’s really scary,” she said.
Her father reminded her that the day was just beginning. “It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” he said.
Residents and officials scramble to find shelter.
Hurricane Irma’s sudden drive to the west prompted last-minute orders for evacuation in Collier and Lee Counties in Florida, leaving little time for residents to pack up and find shelter.
“We thought we were safe,” said a spokeswoman for Collier County who declined to give her name because she was not authorized to discuss the situation. “We thought we were safe like 36 hours ago.”
The spokeswoman said that a forecast at 5 p.m. on Thursday caused county officials to react, getting shelters ready and helping residents seeking to evacuate.
At 6 a.m., Collier County declared a civil emergency and ordered all residents to shelter in place until the storm passed. All emergency vehicles were pulled off the roads an hour later.
In Lee County, three of 14 shelters remained open, including one at an elementary school in Lehigh Acres, well east and inland of Ft. Myers. But the large shelter at Germain Arena in Estero, which opened less than 24 hours before, was full.
In Miami-Dade County, some people who had flocked to shelters were reassessing their situation on Saturday afternoon after learning that the brunt of the hurricane would most likely be felt farther west.
“We’re going home,” Virginia Lopez, an administrative assistant at Barry University, said as she loaded her 5-year-old poodle mix, Princess, into her Mazda outside a shelter at Highland Oaks Middle School after spending the night there with her daughter and son-in-law.
“We decided half an hour ago. The storm has moved to Tampa, so we’re going to get a lot of rain but it won’t be as bad. I don’t feel so scared.”
On Miami Beach, Karen Asher-Howard, who stayed in her beachfront high rise, said her husband and their 17-year-old daughter were still fast asleep Sunday morning.
So far, she said the storm had been “uneventful.”
“We have been very safe and very lucky so far,” she said. “We know the worst may still come.”
The Keys brace for a direct strike.
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