Officials warn of 15-foot storm surge as Irma moves up Florida’s west coast

"There is going to be a wall of water."

Waves crash over a seawall at the mouth of the Miami River from Biscayne Bay, Fla., as Hurricane Irma passes by, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Miami.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Waves crash over a seawall at the mouth of the Miami River from Biscayne Bay, Fla., as Hurricane Irma passes by, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Miami. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Storm surge is the primary concern for Florida officials, as Hurricane Irma works its way up the western coast of the state.

Irma arrived in the Florida Keys on Sunday morning, knocking out power lines and pushing cars off the roads with 130-mile-an-hour winds. But it is Irma’s potential for driving storm surge that is most concerning.

“There is going to be a wall of water,” Sen. Bill Nelson (R-FL) said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “It is going to take a wall of water into the bays and estuaries on the Gulf Coast of Florida.”

Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay were two significant points of concern, he said. Tampa is particularly at risk from storm surge and hurricanes, experts have said.

During storm surge, water is pushed up against the shore by the strong winds. It can result in severe flooding — seen during Superstorm Sandy — especially when it coincides with normal high tides. Storm surge can also be particularly bad when the water is channeled into a bay or harbor.

St. Petersburg, on the north side of Tampa Bay, was experiencing low tide around midday Sunday. High tide is predicted for 6 p.m. Sunday.

“Along the coast, storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane,” the National Hurricane Center says.

On Sunday, people posted images of Florida’s coastline, which had drawn out in advance of the coming storm. Since the hurricane’s winds are blowing counterclockwise, the winds are pushing water out to sea before the storm moves north and blows them back in.

In Naples, Florida, people are expecting 15 feet of storm surge, ABC’s David Muir reported. Naples is a low-lying town on the west coast of Florida, just south of Fort Myers. In comparison to Superstorm Sandy, which swamped New York and New Jersey in 2012, the storm surge was six feet.

“If you live in Naples, in Fort Myers, in Sarasota, in the Tampa Bay region, this storm has the potential to be that sort of worst-case scenario that meteorologists and emergency planners dread,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said Sunday on Face the Nation.

FEMA administrator Brock Long offered similar comments on Fox News Sunday. “This is a worst-case scenario for Monroe County, Florida Keys, and the west coast of Florida,” Long said. “Storm surge has the highest potential to kill the highest amount of people and cause the most amount of damage,” he added.

Officials urged residents in the path of storm surge to evacuate or get to higher ground, if possible.

As of Sunday morning, Marco Island, just south of Naples, had lost water pressure and was under a boil-water alert, the local ABC affiliate reported. Parts of Miami had also flooded by midday Sunday.

Wind, too, is a concern. Irma is a massive hurricane. While the eye of the storm is expected to move up the west coast of Florida, the eastern coast, including Miami, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach, are either experiencing or expecting strong winds. In Miami, a construction crane fell onto a high-rise building Sunday morning. Video from Boca shows tree a tree being uprooted in someone’s yard.

Coming just two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused major flooding in Houston, Irma is taxing an already-extended FEMA. Congress passed a $15 billion emergency relief package for Houston last week, but Nelson said that funding will run out quickly — and now Florida needs attention, too. “We’re going to be back doing a special emergency appropriations in the middle of October,” Nelson predicted.