Announcing itself with roaring 215 km/h winds, Hurricane Irma plowed into the mostly emptied-out Florida Keys early Sunday for the start of what could be a slow, ruinous march up the state’s west coast toward the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
With an estimated 127,000 huddling in shelters statewide, the storm lashed the low-lying string of islands with drenching rain and knocked out power to over 1 million customers even hundreds of kilometres from Irma’s centre.
Residents huddled in shelters watching for updates as Irma began its assault, making landfall on Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys at 9:10 a.m. ET. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the hurricane swept through the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm before moving northward along the state’s west coast, threatening it with potentially catastrophic flooding.
“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Gov. Rick Scott said on Fox News Sunday.
At 1 p.m. ET, Irma was 50 kilometres south of Naples, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The weather service has issued tornado warnings for a wide swath of Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida. The band of rain and tornado producing cells was moving quickly, officials said. There were no immediate reports of tornadoes touching down.
In the Tampa Bay area, access to all of Pinellas County’s barrier islands, including the popular spring break destination of Clearwater Beach, was shut off.
The leading edge of the immense storm bent palm trees and spit rain across South Florida. Utility officials reported power outages affecting more than one million customers.
Braving the storm at home
As the hurricane’s eye approached the Florida Keys early Sunday, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud and her family were huddled in a third-floor apartment at a senior centre in Key West.
“We are good so far,” she said in a text message just before 5:30 a.m. “It’s blowing hard.”
Stroud was with her husband, Tim Stroud, and granddaughter, Sierra Costello. Their dog Rocky was also riding out the storm.
Stroud said she planned to step outside once the eye of the hurricane passed over. She said she has stood in the eye of a hurricane before and it’s “total peace and quiet.”
However, Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to “resist the urge” to go outside during the eye. “Dangerous winds will follow quickly,” police said in a Facebook post.
Scott had warned residents in the state’s evacuation zones Saturday that “this is your last chance to make a good decision.” About 6.4 million people were told to flee.
But because the storm is 560 to 640 kilometres wide, the entire Florida peninsula was exposed. Forecasters said the greater Miami area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of 1.2 to 1.8 metres.
Construction crane collapses in Miami
A crane atop a high-rise building under construction collapsed Sunday in downtown Miami in high winds. It’s not clear yet whether the collapse caused damage or injuries.
Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic with a peak wind speed of 300 km/h last week. It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Sunday said the storm-related death toll on St. Maarten has risen to four.
Meteorologists predicted Irma would plow into the Tampa Bay area Monday morning. The area has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now around 3 million people live there.
The latest course also still threatens Naples’ mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center’s retirement homes, and Sanibel Island’s shell-filled beaches.
Irma’s course change caught many off guard and triggered a major round of last-minute evacuations in the Tampa area. Many businesses had yet to protect windows with plywood or hurricane shutters. Some locals grumbled about the forecast, even though Florida’s west coast had long been included in the zone of probability.
“For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we’re now told it’s coming up the west coast,” said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. “As usual, the weatherman, I don’t know why they’re paid.”
Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and the latest projections could shift again, aiming the worst of the storm at other parts of the state.
Forecasters warned of storm surge as high as 4.5 metres.
“This is going to sneak up on people,” said Jamie Rhome, head of the hurricane center’s storm surge unit.
The westward shift prompted Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, to order 260,000 people to leave, while Georgia scaled back evacuation orders for some coastal residents. Motorists heading inland from the Tampa area were allowed to drive on the shoulders.
At Germain Arena not far from Fort Myers, on Florida’s southwestern corner, thousands waited in a snaking line for hours to gain a spot in the hockey venue-turned-shelter.
“We’ll never get in,” Jamilla Bartley lamented in the parking lot.
The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
In the Orlando area, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World all were closing Saturday. The Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando airports shut down.
Given its mammoth size and strength and its course up the peninsula, it could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida, and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
Flooding along Havana seaside
Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 265 km/h, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $ 26 billion, and at least 40 people died.
Before heading to Florida, the storm hit the north coast of Cuba on Saturday as a Category 5 hurricane.
Damage is extensive, with millions of residents now without electricity.
Freelance reporter Juan Jacomino, who rode out the storm in Havana, told CBC News there is flooding along the city’s famous seaside drive and further west.
There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba — a country that prides itself on its disaster preparedness — but authorities were trying to restore power, clear roads and warning that people should stay off the streets of Havana because flooding could continue into Monday.
CBC IN FLORIDA: The calm before the storm, in photos
Long after most people in Florida were bracing for the hurricane at home or in shelters, employees of this store kept their doors open late Saturday, as CBC journalists in Naples discovered.