When it is finally safe for emergency officials to fan out across the peninsula, they will find out whether that is enough.
Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday morning with top sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph). While the projected track showed Irma raking the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire Florida peninsula — including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — was in extreme danger from the monstrous storm, almost 400 miles (640 kilometers) wide. Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to get out of the storm’s path, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.
A weary Gov. Rick Scott, who has flown across the state during the past five days sounding the alarm bell ahead of landfall, acknowledged that it won’t be easy for residents in the days ahead. Florida has long dealt with hurricanes, including a stretch of eight hurricanes in two years while Jeb Bush was governor, but Irma’s wide reach has proved daunting.
“I don’t think anybody alive today in this state has ever seen anything like this,” Scott said at the state’s emergency operations center when the first parts of the storm started to cross into the Florida Keys.
More than 1 million residents had already lost power by Sunday morning, and it could be days before officials can provide food and water to those struggling in the aftermath of the powerful storm.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said Hurricane Irma is going to pose challenges for first responders.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday” as Irma began its assault on Florida on Sunday morning, Long called the storm a “complex event” in particular because of its movement from the southern part of the state to the north.
“The power’s going to be out for a long time. It’s going to be tough for us to get in to perform search and rescue in South Florida. We have to wait till all the elements pass through,” he said. “Once this system passes through it’s going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives.”
Long said his biggest concern is when people fail to listen to early warnings from local government officials and then try to make a last-ditch effort to try to get to a shelter or another facility that will withstand severe winds. Long says that in some cases water begins to rise and people get trapped.
“Sometimes people listen and sometimes they don’t,” Long said.
Florida has already spent $77 million ahead of Irma’s arrival. Scott has called up and sent out 7,000 National Guardsmen across the state, some of whom have been dispatched to the more than 400 shelters that have been set up. Major General Michael Calhoun, the head of Florida’s National Guard, said on Sunday that more than 10,000 National Guard members from other states are going to be arriving soon.
Meanwhile, search-and-rescue teams located in Orlando and other staging areas were waiting out the storm until it was safe enough to go out and assess the extent of the damage and injuries. One of the teams was preparing to fly into Key West, directly in the path of the storm.
The challenges in the immediate aftermath of the storm will be many: Restoring across the state, removing debris from roads, dealing with possible fuel shortages, and making sure nursing home and hospital patients who were evacuated can safely return. State officials are also fearful the massive rain that was soaking the state could also lead to flash floods.
Scott said that he knows many Floridians want to resume their normal lives as soon as possible. But he acknowledged that may not happen soon.
“Florida will get through this,” he said. “You’ve got to be patient.”