MIAMI -- Florida is drenched, tattered -- but fortunate.
Hurricane Irma weakened as it moved past Tampa on Monday, leaving in its wake a state that avoided the worst predictions of its destruction by sea and storm. By one estimate, the cost of total damages dropped to $49 billion from $200 billion earlier. Still, at least 5.6 million were without power, millions displaced and as much as 15 inches of rain were forecast in what may yet go down as one of the worst storms in Florida’s history.
The center of the system, America’s second major hurricane in a week, was expected to soften to a tropical storm Monday morning and a tropical depression by afternoon, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. As the storm headed north, threatening torrential rains in Atlanta, a storm-surge warning was discontinued for parts of southern Florida.
“Miami and Miami Beach, we didn’t dodge a bullet, we dodged a cannon,” Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said in an interview Monday morning.
The cyclone made landfall in the Keys about Sunday morning as a Category 4 storm, ravaging the delicate string of islands and then battering Miami before beginning its march up the coast as its fury began to dissipate.
As of 8 a.m., Irma had weakened to become a tropical storm, with top winds of 70 mph, and was about 105 miles north of Tampa, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm will leave 8 to 15 inches of rain in its wake in parts of northern Florida, according to the agency.
Even a weaker Irma possessed the power to disrupt. Atlanta, with its dense canopy of trees, was effectively shut down Monday as intensifying winds threatened to bring down limbs and power lines. Area schools were closed along with most courts and government offices; the public transportation system, called Marta, discontinued service for the first time in its history. The city’s legendary traffic was not to be seen as rain fell during rush hour.
Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Hala Moddelmog alerted her employees, many of whom take public transportation, that the office would close Monday.
"I didn’t want them walking to and from Marta stations in this weather," Moddelmog said. "And I didn’t want other employees on the road in the way of emergency vehicles."
But Irma’s impact was falling short of predictions by a number of measures. On Friday, NextEra Energy Inc.’s Florida Power & Light utility was warning that 4.1 million of its customers could lose power. As of 8 a.m. Eastern time, about 3.6 million were down. About 200,000 Georgia Power customers mostly in coastal and southern regions are without power. Duke Energy Inc. estimated that Irma could knock out service to more than 1 million customers; about 863,000 were without power.
The estimated financial impact shrank as well. Chuck Watson, an Enki Research disaster modeler in Savannah, Ga., had predicted total damages as high as $200 billion. However, the hurricane dwindled to a Category 2 before reaching the Tampa Bay area. That could keep damages under $49 billion, with insured losses at about $19 billion, sparing insurance companies, Watson said. Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Jonathan Adams puts insured losses now at $13 billion, down from an earlier estimate of $33 billion.
“There may yet be a Florida insurance market on Tuesday,” Watson said.
By comparison, total losses from Hurricane Katrina reached $160 billion in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005. While Irma didn’t reach that level of destruction, it could surpass the damage caused by 1992’s Hurricane Andrew that punched its way across the Florida peninsula.
The dramatic drop in Irma’s estimated cost, though, didn’t mean the region would be spared a savage human toll. It laid waste to the small island of Barbuda, killed at least 25 people and left thousands homeless across the Caribbean. The low-lying Keys were devastated, with photos showing cars submerged almost to their roofs.
Military ships and aircraft delivered thousands of tarps, 40 pallets of food, medical supplies and water to the Virgin Islands, while evacuating more than 70 patients, according to a news release from the U.S. Northern Command. Ships were in position to begin search and rescue work when weather permits.
After the storm passed over Miami on Sunday night, the city began to revive and take stock. Along Calle Ocho, the cultural center of Cuban-American life in Florida, almost everything was dark, and trees and power lines were down. At Versailles restaurant, the sign was missing and the windows were covered with sheet-metal hurricane shutters.
On Brickell Avenue, water had receded, though a temporary lake still covered part of the street. Lights were on in front of many buildings and street lights were working.
Ardy Montazer, 29, who was riding his scooter around the area, rode out the storm in his 35th floor condo. He said he spent a lot of the day on his balcony in a hammock measuring the wind.
“But then the balcony started shaking so I thought I should go inside,” he said. Even with the city wet and shambolic, and despite the looming wreckage of the cranes, residents said they felt a sense of relief.
“We definitely missed the worst of it,” said Will Beckham, a 30-year-old insurance agent who lives in Brickell.