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Historic flooding swamps Florida as Irma sweeps north

TALLAHASSEE — Hurricane Irma's ferocious storm surge and flash floods overwhelmed large sections of Florida with some of the most severe flooding the state has seen in more than 100 years.

After drenching the vulnerable chain of islands in the Keys, followed by parts of Miami, Naples, Orlando, Tampa and Lakeland, Irma finally left town Monday after inundating Jacksonville with flood waters as it spun toward Georgia.

Jacksonville's fast-rising St. Johns River forced residents to frantically seek refuge.

A downtown highway off ramp was nearly swallowed by rising waters and National Guard vehicles rolled into the upscale, highly flood-prone San Marco neighborhood in the heart of a large coastal community whose historical nickname "The River City" took on ironic significance.

"It's a rare event," said Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, who guided his city through Hurricane Matthew last October, "of a magnitude that we have not seen in nearly 150 years."

The scene in Jacksonville was a culmination of Irma's rampage across the state, beginning with its first landfall on Sunday in Cudjoe Key. Areas that have long been prone to flooding, such as historic St. Augustine, also bore the brunt of Irma's fury.

"Epic river flooding," said National Weather Service meteorologist Angie Enyedi in Jacksonville.

By Monday afternoon, unofficial rainfall totals as compiled by the National Weather Service in Miami included 13.6 inches in Inlikita in southwest Miami-Dade, 11.5 inches in Naples, 11 inches in Plantation, west of Fort Lauderdale, and 10.3 inches in LaBelle in rural Hendry County.

Gov. Rick Scott, at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Opa-locka, said Tampa experienced 2 to 4 feet of storm surge and Jacksonville saw 3 to 5 feet of surge, along with a foot of rainfall.

"My heart goes out to the people of the Keys," Scott said after flying over the Keys in a C-130 aircraft. "There's devastation. I just hope everybody survived. It's horrible what we saw."

Scott said Navy aircraft carriers and search and rescue teams from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will converge on the Keys to help Irma's victims.

In Jacksonville, residents were reminded of the health risks of contaminated standing water and the possibility of serious infection for people with cuts or sores.

"Use caution in flood water," tweeted Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard. "I contracted a staph infection covering '16 Matthew floods that nearly killed me."

President Donald J. Trump's homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, described the crisis in Jacksonville as "some of the worst flooding we've seen in a hundred years … We have life-sustaining operations underway."

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, whose low-lying city is bisected by rivers and canals, largely escaped flooding. "We were lucky," he said. "We had very little storm surge."

But Seiler, a Democrat, said he hoped Irma would force Republican leaders to a long-overdue acknowledgement of the long-term dangers of climate change and sea level rise in Florida.

"They don't want to have that conversation in Tallahassee," said Seiler, a former legislator. "Flooding is a problem for the whole peninsula."

On Facebook, the St. John's County Fire Rescue unit showed dramatic pictures of houses badly damaged by rising flood waters, including a large home that slid off its foundation and nearly fell into the Atlantic Ocean near Ponte Vedra Beach.

"There has been an understandable focus on the Keys and South Florida and Tampa and Orlando," said state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. "People are going to be surprised, even stunned, when the storm moves on, and everyone sees what has happened to Northeast Florida."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet

Historic flooding swamps Florida as Irma sweeps north 09/11/17 [Last modified: Monday, September 11, 2017 5:39pm]
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