Hurricane Irma blasts Florida's inland counties

- Hurricane Irma failed to pack the punch that forecasters feared, but what fury it still had after coming ashore in Marco Island was unleashed on Central Florida’s inland counties.  Residents in Polk, Hardee, Highlands, and DeSoto counties are recovering after a rough night of wind and rain.

Irma had since downgraded to to a tropical storm, as of 8 a.m. on Monday.

Irma was still a Category 2 storm at midnight, swirling through Polk County with winds of 100 mph. Polk County Fire Rescue had been forced to suspend regular operations due to the deteriorating conditions.

The county’s 19 hurricane shelters -- housing over 8,300 evacuees -- had been locked down, while residents who stayed home reported roaring, howling winds and scattered power outages.

The rest of the Tampa Bay area isn’t out of the woods yet, either. High wind gusts are still blasting across the area, changing directions as the swirling storm passes.  Gusts of 84 mph and 90 mph were recorded coming in off the Gulf of Mexico at Clearwater Beach and Fort DeSoto, respectively.

Downed trees seemed to be the most commonly reported problem.  An apartment building in Lakeland suffered dramatic damage when a tree ripped through a wall.  Eight people inside escaped without injury.

Other parts of Polk County has seen extensive damage. A steeple blew off the First Baptist Church of Lake Wales, two rental cars were destroyed when a sign blew down onto them at Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Lake Wales, and chunks of siding broke off Winter Haven Manor Apartments.

The parking lot of a Publix bakery in Lakeland also flooded. 

The storm has already proven deadly, however. Two people – a deputy and corrections officer – were killed in a Hardee County vehicle crash ahead of the storm.

Emergency officials were waiting for the weather to subside further before beginning damage assessments.

Irma is expected to continue to move north, further weakening as it goes. Its winds were down to 85 mph by 2 a.m.

After brushing Cuba, the record-setting storm never quite reorganized and an earlier-than-expected landfall in southwest Florida prevented Irma from further re-strengthening over the warm Gulf waters.

While the storm’s inland track fell within the National Hurricane Center’s cone of error, much of the pre-storm focus was on the more-populous areas of Miami, the Keys, and Tampa Bay. But longtime Polk County residents can remember back to 2004 when powerful Hurricane Charley swerved away from an expected Tampa landfall, instead raking the middle of the state – the first of three hurricanes to do so that year.

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