Hurricane Irma’s howling winds and drenching rains lashed south Florida late Saturday as the monster storm bore down on the Sunshine State’s west coast.
The slow-moving weather system spawned tornadoes in Broward and Palm Beach Counties and threatened to unleash a storm surge capable of swallowing up the Florida Keys as its eye approached the U.S. mainland.
More than 170,000 homes and businesses had already lost power as the center of the storm hovered 90 miles southeast of Key West.
The projected track of the storm shifted further west just before midnight, putting St. Petersburg — not nearby Tampa or Miami — in line for a direct hit. The storm regained Category 4 strength with 130 mph winds as it entered the Florida Straits around 2 a.m. Sunday.
Hours earlier, officials in Florida spoke in blunt terms about the impending impact of the menacing Caribbean storm already blamed for 22 deaths in its watery path of destruction.
“The storm is here,” declared Gov. Rick Scott, whose family evacuated his beachside mansion on the Gulf Coast. “This is a deadly storm, and our state has never seen anything like it.”
Scott mentioned the anticipated 15-foot storm surge along Florida’s Gulf Coast: “Think about that. … (It) will cover your house.”
The first outer bands of the storm reached the southern tip of Florida early Saturday, although Irma wasn’t expected to reach the Florida Keys in full roar until early Sunday.
Irma had fallen to a Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds as it neared southern Florida but it threatened to strengthen as it swept over the bathtub-warm waters off the coast.
The National Hurricane Center’s latest storm track showed Irma hugging Florida’s west coast as it marched north. The new projected path meant the storm would likely intensify over the Gulf of Mexico before striking St. Petersburg followed by Clearwater.
View of the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Sint Maarten Dutch part of Saint Martin island in the Caribbean September 6, 2017.
(Netherlands Ministry of Defence via Reuters)
The powerful Irma pounded Cuba for hours with ferocious winds, relentless rain and massive flooding Saturday on its march toward the Sunshine State.
The hurricane’s changing arc was expected to spare Miami and its 6 million area residents from Irma’s worst.
St. Petersburg was instead facing the likelihood of its first direct hurricane hit in close to a century.
“If you have been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now,” Scott said at a Saturday night news briefing. “This is your last chance to make a good decision.”
Officials estimated there were more than 50,000 people in 320 shelters across the state.
Among those evacuated were 426 inmates from the Key West jail, relocated by bus to cells in Palm Beach County.
Carol Walterson Stroud, 60, and her husband settled into a senior center in Key West with their granddaughter and dog.
“I’m sweating,” said Stroud. “Tonight, I’m scared to death.”
The last time Tampa took the brunt of a major hurricane was back in 1921, when the population was 10,000. The current population of the region is roughly 3 million.
Lined up like bowling pins awaiting the storm were the west coast cities of Tampa-St. Petersburg, the wealthy enclave of Naples with its mansions and canals lined with yachts, and Sanibel Island’s pristine beaches.
Sanibel resident Charlie Ball left his home with no expectations of finding anything whenever he gets a chance to return.
“Just left the island and said goodbye to everything I own,” said Ball, 62, owner of a painting business.
Scott’s family bailed out of their home in Naples, and President Trump’s waterfront estate Mar-a-Lago was under an evacuation order.
The President, accompanied by Cabinet members, hunkered down at Camp David to await word on the storm’s arrival in Florida.
Officials warned power will likely go out to nearly half the state’s population, and there were more than 75,000 without electricity by Saturday evening.
A staggering 6.7 million people were ordered to evacuate Florida and Georgia. Roughly one in four Florida residents were ordered to abandon their homes.
“Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe,” tweeted the National Weather Service.
Forecasters warned Irma could dump 20 inches of rain in addition to its expected flooding.
Local residents walk along an empty street in South Beach prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irma. An estimated 6.2 million Floridians were ordered out of their homes.
Diana Valdez, 35, opted to ride out the storm in her downtown Miami high-rise apartment — although few other residents did the same. Much of the area was eerily empty in the wake of evacuation orders.
“I had to just wait and see,” she said after skipping an invite to stay with family 10 miles away in Doral, Fla.
Luise Campana Read of Fort Lauderdale said she intended to stay in her beachfront condo, along with her elderly mom, rather than relocate to a shelter.
“With a 97-year-old, there’s no way I was going to have her sleep on a cot or a blow-up mattress,” she said.
But a long line of the soon-to-be-displaced gathered outside an arena-turned-evacuation-center in Estero, just north of Naples.
According to forecasters, Irma weakened to a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 125 mph as it reached the Cuban coastline.
But the warmer waters of the Florida Straits were expected to restore any of the hurricane’s lost fury as Irma bore down on Florida’s south end.
The possibility of Irma cranking back up to Category 4, with winds of 130 mph or higher, was considered likely.
The National Hurricane Center warned that Irma would bring “life-threatening wind” to much of Florida when it arrives.
“You don’t want to play chicken with this thing or try to outrun the storm,” warned Sen. Marco Rubio while stopping by the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center. “People will die from this.”
Even before Irma reached the mainland, some insurance experts were predicting as much as $ 50 billion in damages from Irma.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimated that Hurricane Harvey’s damage tab could run as high at $ 150 billion to $ 180 billion.
Officials assessing the damage across the Caribbean recounted a staggering toll in death and destruction.
In Anguilla, for example, officials estimated 90% of the electricity infrastructure was destroyed by Irma. On the tiny island of Barbuda, 90% of the structures were demolished.
Roughly 1 million people in Puerto Rico were left without power — and they dodged a direct hit from the hurricane.
On St. Martin, looting and gunfire was reported, forcing the French government to dispatch hundreds of Foreign Legion troops and police to the island.
And in Cuba, Irma’s last stop before heading to Florida, the destruction was comparable to that seen throughout the Caribbean. The best news: no immediate reports of death on the island.
Risle Echememndia, 28, was busily sweeping muddy water out the front door of his home in the Cuban fishing town of Caibarien. Streets throughout the town were flooded or choked with seaweed.
“This was the strongest storm Caibarien ever had,” he said. “It will take a while to recover from this, at least a few years.”
With Kenneth Lovett