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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Hurricane Irma diary: A city under curfew and a tornado warning

Fort Lauderdale in southern Florida has been battered by hurricane winds and torrential rain all day. Although Hurricane Irma skirted to the west, it still swept through the region with winds gusting at 150kph and dropped record amounts of rain.

This is what it was like to hunker down in a hotel room in a city under curfew, as a tornado warning circulated and flood waters rose.

5am — Woken by phone, which is emitting a shrieking alert that I haven’t heard before. “Tornado warning in this area till 5.30am,” says a National Weather Centre warning. “Take shelter now.”

I check the storm windows and they seem to be holding up. The wind outside seems to be no worse than it was the night before, but this is just the start. The bathroom, which has no external walls or windows, is my refuge if the windows get blown in.

7.30am — The winds are strengthening hour by hour. The rain is filling part of the car park which stands at the bottom of a slight incline. The water is lapping at the doors of two cars. Dark clouds overhead mean the day will never properly lighten and Irma will sweep through in an eerie, angry twilight.

9.23am — Craig Mayor, who I met for the first time yesterday, telephones to see how I’m getting on. He is a veteran of multiple hurricanes and although his house is on the beach it is high enough and secure enough — with steel shutters and sandbags — to weather almost anything. After all that, he says they forgot to close the cat flap.

9.45am — Some of the other hotel guests are standing outside their rooms in the fresh air watching the hurricane roll in. We can stand in the hotel’s colonnade protected from the worst of the elements. I meet Eric, a retired Marine sergeant, who has a six-inch knife in his belt. He is from California and better at earthquakes than hurricanes, he tells me. He is chatting to Ostar, a roofer, whose six-month-old pit bull terrier is cowering in fear from the wind. Another guest gives him a cold cheeseburger for the dog.

10.45am — Back inside my room and there’s a crash outside the window. I pull back the curtains — perhaps not sensible — to see that part of the drainpipe has been brought down by the wind. Without it, a torrent of water gushes onto a small flower bed filling it instantly. It has nowhere to go.

11.35am — The wind is getting stronger and stronger. We are due to hit peak winds at about midday. By now the palm trees are bending at alarming angles. I hope what they say is true and they are flexible enough to survive the storm. Meanwhile, it turns out the water does have somewhere to go. It is seeping under the door of my room, spreading into a six-wide puddle that I try to slosh back outside with my boot.

1.55pm — We are under curfew here in Broward county. It was imposed at 1600 on Saturday and meant to keep the streets clear for the emergency services. I suspect it was also to thwart looting. Although I was happy to ignore it yesterday, winds today have hit more than 150kph and it would be insanity to venture out in my rented 4x4. Instead, the TV is keeping me informed about what is happening further afield as I listen to crashes and thumps from outside. Palm fronds, branches and flimsy bits of construction panelling skitter through the car park. Ironically the hotel's emergency exit sign is blown off, but gratifyingly remains illuminated even on the ground.

3.00pm — The lights flicker off and then pop back on. The TV, however, is dead. The satellite dish must have been one of the earlier crashes. The air conditioner (not necessary today) gives me a “br” error code. We may still have electricity — unlike another 700,000 customers in this county and more than two million across the state — but we are now in a “brown out”, either through a line being brought down somewhere or a deliberate reduction in voltage to protect power supplies.

3.30pm — A rumble outside the window grows into a roaring sound as if a freight train is about to smash through my room. And then the noise is gone. Veterans like Mr Mayor told me that is the sound of a tornado. I stay away from the window. Later I find out that the National Weather Service detected a tornado close to Fort Lauderdale Airport racing north-east, putting it roughly on a course for my hotel.

5pm — It is twelve hours since I was woken by a tornado alert and the winds are starting to slow. I wonder if it is safe enough to venture out and see what damage has been done. Right on cue my phone goes again with another tornado alert. It looks like I will be eating my emergency rations tonight — beef jerky, raw carrots and a yogurt. We may have had a let-off here on the east coast as Irma veered west (the hotel still has power and water), but this is still going to be a long, long night.

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Read more:

Hurricane Irma spins off tornadoes as it starts to pummel south Florida

Hurricane Irma forces evacuation at Centcom headquarters in Florida