More than 6.3 million people evacuated from the path of Hurricane Irma on Saturday as one the most powerful storms in history lined up a potentially catastrophic direct strike on Florida.
A tale of two Irmas: rich Miami ready for tumult as poor Miami waits and hopes
Slightly weakened after hitting Cuba but still packing an enormously powerful punch, effects of the storm that has claimed more than 20 lives during a week-long 185mph rampage across the Caribbean reached deep into the Sunshine State by late afternoon.
The centre of the category 4 storm was predicted to make landfall in the Florida Keys, the vulnerable low-lying island chain off the state’s southern coast, in the early hours of Sunday. But the outer bands of a storm that Florida governor Rick Scott warned was “wider than the entire state” lashed coastal and inland areas through the day, sparking tornado warnings and widespread loss of power.
“The storm is here,” Scott said at a briefing in Sarasota County, at which he warned that an expected 6ft to 15ft surge of sea water would engulf houses.
“Hurricane Irma is now impacting our state. Millions of Floridians will see major hurricane impact with deadly storm surge and life-threatening wind. If you have been ordered to evacuate you need to leave now. Not tonight, not in an hour, you need to go right now.”
The projected track of Irma took it up the west coast of Florida during Sunday and in line for a direct hit on the 3 million residents of the Tampa Bay area early on Monday, still as a major hurricane with sustained winds of greater than 140mph. A tornado watch was issued for all of south Florida.
If you have been ordered to evacuate you need to leave now. Not tonight, not in an hour, you need to go right now
Rick Scott, Florida governor
Radar images of Irma over Cuba’s northern coast showed that the storm’s core had been disrupted by its interaction with land, raising hopes that its power could be diminished. But later data showed it regaining shape as it moved back into the warm, open waters of the Florida Straits.
“We’re concerned that as it eases away from Cuba it will strengthen again,” said Max Mayfield, a former director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC). “The core of the hurricane, where the really devastating winds are going to be, is going to move right over the lower Florida Keys early tomorrow morning, and then likely another landfall somewhere on the south-west Florida coast.”
The restrengthening was confirmed by the NHC’s late-afternoon advisory, which forecast a category 4 hurricane at landfall. The agency had earlier adjusted the projected track of Irma’s centre further west, away from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in the south east, home to more than 6 million people.
But NHC specialist Lixion Avila warned that hurricane force winds stretched more than 70 miles from Irma’s centre and that no part of Florida was out of danger.
“There is an imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding in portions of central and southern Florida, including the Florida Keys,” he said. “Irma is expected to bring life-threatening wind and storm surge to the Florida Keys and south-western Florida as an extremely dangerous major hurricane.”
All but deserted from a mandatory evacuation order that came into effect in midweek, the near sea-level Florida Keys island chain was expected to be inundated by up to 15ft of water.
Officials reported that the mass evacuation of millions of residents of coastal and vulnerable areas close to inland water had mostly gone smoothly, despite shortages of fuel and gridlock on major highways.
“Very few cars are out there, citizens have taken evacuation warnings very seriously, our shelters are beginning to get full,” said Scott Israel, sheriff of Broward County, where a 4pm curfew was ordered. By late afternoon, however, the northbound I-75 near Ocala was gridlocked.
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