Irma Swiftly Lays Claim to Florida’s Sea of Trees

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Fallen trees after Hurricane Irma in Miami on Monday. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

MIAMI — After the wind and rain had passed, and the Florida sun had begun shining again, Bruce Mawry emerged from his Miami Beach home to find a grisly scene of fallen trunks, scattered fronds and rolling coconuts. It amounted to a palm tree massacre.

“I was amazed at the number of trees that had damage,” said Mr. Mawry, the chief civil engineer for the city of Miami Beach, who immediately began dispatching teams to tag every tree that could be saved. “Many had their roots pulled out. Even mature trees split down the middle.”

From the retirement communities around Naples to the sprawling white beaches of Jacksonville, Florida is home to more than a dozen species of palm trees, which cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $20,000 and are an important part of the image of the state. Perhaps more than any building or home, it was the palms, and a host of other canopy trees, that took the full force of Irma.

Some had their tops ripped clean off, leaving them looking like lonely toothpicks sticking up out of the ground. Others were toppled or split, turning formerly majestic rows of Florida royal palms into mazes of debris. Even those that survived had their fronds battered, all pointing in one direction, a reminder of which way the fierce winds blew.

Along the Venetian Causeway, which leads from downtown Miami to the beach, coconuts littered parts of the roadway, their parent trees torn apart.

In Palmetto Bay, Althea Harris and her husband, Robert, were mourning their garden. They bought their home in January, and continued to nurture their 1.4-acre property, originally planted by a botanist. Ms. Harris, 48, knew them all by name — the saba tree, the orchids, the palm trees.

She rattled them off as she flicked through pictures on her phone: “Saba tree? Gone. Palm trees? Gone.”

The saba tree, Ms. Harris said, woke her up at 4:30 Sunday morning, slamming across her yard and onto her porch roof.

When she went out Monday morning, the tree had snapped, half wedged in her poinciana tree, the rest leaning on her roof. The rest of her garden, she said, was in shambles, with branches and leaves torn everywhere.

Her house was O.K., she said, “just by the grace of God.”

— MARC SANTORA and EMILY COCHRANE

Tampa’s Luck

TAMPA, Fla. — When Michael Messano returned to his home in one of this bayside city’s many flood-prone neighborhoods on Monday, he saw something that had been almost unimaginable one day before: His street had not turned into a river. His one-story house was fine.

“We got lucky, man,” Mr. Messano, 39, said to his neighbor, Brad Smith, 53. “I don’t know why we keep getting so lucky.”

Officials here had been worried that Irma would be the first hurricane to made a direct hit on the city in more than 90 years, roaring into Tampa Bay and leaving enormous swaths of this low-lying city under water.

“This,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn had said on Sunday afternoon, “is a Gulf mayor’s worst nightmare.”

Instead, Irma passed to the east, knocking down trees and power lines but sparing the city of serious damage. And it joined a century-long list of hurricanes to skip this city of casinos and Super Bowl games. “We’re lucky,” screamed the Tampa Bay Times front page, and residents and officials alike were left bewildered, though deeply relieved, as the grasped for the reason for their run of good fortune.

“Because we live good lives, because we only get drunk once in a while,” Mr. Buckhorn mused. “No, I don’t have an answer for that.”

Some suggested it was the city’s location, tucked just inland, insulated it from all but a direct hit from the west.

“What we fear more than anything is a storm coming in from the west coast,” said Vivian Genders, as she cleared small debris from a laurel oak tree in the yard of her bay front home, its windows still boarded with plexiglass shutters. “We were spared that.”

But even as the visibly relieved mayor reclined in a chair in the city’s emergency operations center on Monday morning, a chewed-up but unlit cigar in his hand, he warned the good luck could not possibly last forever. “You can’t assume,” he said, “our number won’t come up.”

— JESS BIDGOOD

A Midnight Knock

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A sinkhole swallowed several air conditioning units at an apartment complex in Orlando, Fla. Credit Josh Ritchie for The New York Times

ORLANDO, Fla. — First, they heard the roar of Hurricane Irma’s gusting winds. Then a blaring fire alarm. Then a midnight knock on the door from first responders.

You must evacuate, they said. A sinkhole collapsed on the side of their building, swallowing six air-conditioning units — and, possibly damaging the building.

So in the middle of the night, about 30 people — some sleepy-eyed, some wide-awake and frightened — living in building 8 of an Orlando apartment complex trudged from their home to the clubhouse, where they spent the rest of the night. Others evacuated to homes of friends or relatives.

“It was scary. I grabbed my keys and wallet and ran out,” said Ernest Almonor, a cable technician who has lived in a first-floor apartment for about four years.

Just a day after the storm plowed through South Florida, Irma spewed strong, violent winds in Orlando, leaving patches of damage, many without power, sheared trees and signs, some neighborhood flooding and, well, a sinkhole.

Throughout the morning, curious residents wandered over to the sinkhole which had opened along the bottom edge of the three-story, terra-cotta building. It created a trench of sorts along almost the length of the building.

Neighbors debated whether it was a sinkhole, as the Orange County Fire Rescue officially described it, or erosion prompted by Irma. For sure, they said, whatever it was had opened and been filled before, earlier in the summer. Central Florida is particularly vulnerable to sinkholes and heavy rainfall can cause the ground to suddenly give way.

“They told us it was serious and we need to clear the building,” said Vida Edward, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor and was among those that called 9-1-1. “Whether is a sinkhole or erosion, it’s dangerous.”

— AUDRA D.S. BURCH

Dry Artifacts

PALMETTO BAY, Fla. — Jennifer Tisthammer was tense as she drove her pickup truck through puddles of water, mud spraying from her tires. Her attention was focused on the Stone House and Richmond Cottage, two landmarks of the Charles Deering Estate, an environmental, archaeological and historic preserve in Palmetto Bay.

She had spent the night at the 444-acre estate, taking shelter in a research facility a few feet higher than the homes. She parked her truck a few feet from the house, jumping out to get closer to the remnants of the storm surge: snarled palm fronds and seaweed, at least a foot high, piled a few steps from the house.

Ms. Tisthammer’s eyes filled with tears as she surveyed the homes, a ripped screen the only visible sign of damage. “This is good,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief as she gestured. “The fact that this came to here, we may not have as much damage.”

She and her staff had spent three days anchoring the artifacts from Mr. Deering’s personal collection inside, storing $100,000 paintings in upstairs bathrooms. They wouldn’t know until later how the basement in the Stone House, with its wine bottles from the Prohibition era and some storage pieces, had fared. But the sight of a dry interior, with all artifacts intact, was a good sign.

— EMILY COCHRANE

Quiet Reflections

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A search-and-rescue team with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Orlando, Fla., observed a moment of silence on Monday for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

ORLANDO, Fla. — The search-and-rescue team from California had been up since before dawn, packing their gear and checking, again, their dozens of vehicles. But before California Task Force 1 would leave for missions in the Florida Keys, they lifted their blue baseball caps and bowed their heads.

“On this day, it would be appropriate for us to say a few words,” said Chuck Ruddell, a leader of the task force and one of the approximately dozen current members who worked on rescue efforts in New York.

“On this day, the 16th anniversary of 9/11, it’s an obligation, I think, for each of us to remind ourselves of those who were killed, recognize those who survived in honor of the sacrifices of the first responders and those recovery workers who were there for so many days,” said Mr. Ruddell, who was among the Los Angeles officials who flew out of the city on the night of Sept. 11.

Although the specialized search-and-rescue task force has deployed across the country — the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, hurricanes including Katrina and Harvey — Sept. 11, it seemed, has lingered over the group more than any other effort.

— ALAN BLINDER

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