Category 4 Hurricane Irma begins assault on Florida Keys
The Category 4 Hurricane Irma has reached the southern U.S. state of Florida Sunday after It has been ravaging the Caribbean islands since Friday.
Residents huddled in shelters watching for updates as Hurricane Irma began its assault on Florida early Sunday as a Category 4 storm, lashing the area with winds near 130 mph (215 kph) and drenching rain.
Announcing itself with roaring 130 mph 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 across Florida.
About 30,000 people heeded orders to evacuate the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused to leave, in part because to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.
"The most important thing is to pray for us," Gov. Rick Scott said on NBC.
The Republican governor said he spoke to President Donald Trump, and "everything I've asked out of the federal government, he's made sure he gave us."
While the projected track showed Irma raking the state's Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire Florida peninsula — including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — was in extreme danger from the monstrous storm, almost 400 miles wide.
Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to get out of the storm's path, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.
Once the storm passes, "we're going to need a lot of help," the governor warned. But also described Florida as "a tough state. We're going to come through this."
Irma made landfall in the U.S. at Cudjoe Key in the lower Keys, forecasters said.
As of 8 a.m. EDT, the hurricane was centered about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Key West, moving northwest at 8 mph (13 kph).
As the hurricane's eye approached the Keys early Sunday, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud and her family were huddled in a third-floor apartment at a senior center in Key West.
"We are good so far," she said in a text message just before 5:30 a.m. "It's blowing hard."
Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to "resist the urge" to go outside during the eye, the deceptive calm interlude in the middle of a hurricane. "Dangerous winds will follow quickly," police said in a Facebook post.
Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph) last week.
It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean, and as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico's bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, regained strength.
Forecasters said Irma could hit the Tampa-St. Petersburg areas early Monday.
The Tampa Bay area has not taken a direct hit from 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 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 closed on Saturday. The Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando airports shut down.
Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, Irma could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.
IRMA RAKES FLORIDA KEYS, AIMS AT TAMPA BAY AREA
The National Hurricane Center forecasts that the core of Hurricane Irma will likely chug directly for the highly populated Tampa-St. Petersburg region after it gets through raking the Keys, but the storm is so massive all of Florida will be feeling the Category 4 hurricane's fury.
The center of the storm was just off Key West Sunday morning.
The latest forecast of Irma's eye — which still can change — keeps the nearly 400-mile wide (640-kilometer) storm in the water, barely off the coast of southwestern Florida's Fort Myers and Naples.
But that also puts that region in the strongest northeast quadrant of the storm, where storm surge, wind, rain and tornado threats are highest.
And a few miles wiggle could bring Irma's eye — which has measured 30 miles wide (48 kilometers) — inland.
The storm is moving slowly, about 8 mph (13 kilometers per hour) so its eye is likely to hit the Tampa region around 2 a.m. Monday, but damaging winds, storm, surge, rain and tornadoes will reach the area long before then.
PRESSURE MEASURE RANKS IRMA IN STRONGEST STORMS
Hurricane Irma became tied for the seventh strongest storm to make landfall in U.S. history by a key measurement of atmospheric pressure.
Hurricane Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key at 9:10 a.m. with a minimum central pressure of 929 millibars. Atmospheric pressure is one of the major measurements meteorologists use to describe storms. The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.
Only six storms on record had lower pressures when striking the United States, including Katrina. When Katrina hit in 2005, it had lower pressure but its wind speed kept it at Category 3.
The 929 pressure mark ties Irma with the deadly 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane.
Irma's arrival also marks another first.
Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach says this is the first year on record that the United States has been hit by two storms that were Category 4 upon landfall: Harvey and Irma.
FLORIDA SHERIFF: DO NOT SHOOT AT HURRICANE
Florida authorities have issued another stern warning about Hurricane Irma: Shooting bullets into the storm won't help keep you safe.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office tweeted late Saturday: "DO NOT shoot weapons @ (hashtag) Irma. You won't make it turn around (and) it will have very dangerous side effects."
The sheriff's office, which is in the Tampa Bay-area, was responding to a Facebook event page created two Florida men inviting people to shoot at Irma.
The page reads: "YO SO THIS GOOFY ... LETS SHOW IRMA THAT WE SHOOT FIRST ..."
The invitation presumably was a joke, but 80,000 people indicated they were "going" or "interested" in the event.
In a tweet early Sunday, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office asked the thousands of people who had shared the page to also share their request for volunteers needed at hurricane shelters.
FLORIDA KEYS AUTHORITIES URGE PEOPLE TO SHELTER
Authorities are urging people who chose to ride out Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys to remain indoors until the storm passes.
The storm's eyewall reached the chain of islands Sunday morning. The National Weather Service reported wind gusts of 90 mph (145 kph) near its Key West office.
In a Facebook post early Sunday, Key West Police urged people who stayed for the hurricane to remain where they took shelter until the storm had passed completely. They also urged people not to go outside when the eye of the storm is over there area, a time period when conditions can seem deceptively calm.
John Huston, who is riding out the storm from his home in Key Largo in the upper Keys, says the wind gusts are strong in his area.
"Water level is higher today," he said via text message Sunday morning. "Incredible wind that won't stop."
IRMA'S APPROACH BRINGS TORNADO WARNINGS
The National Weather Service in Miami has issued tornado warnings for a wide swath of Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida.
Officials say the band of rain and tornado producing cells is moving quickly.
There have been no reports of tornadoes touching down.
MORE THAN 1 MILLION LOSE POWER AS IRMA HITS
Florida utility officials say more than 1 million customers have lost power as Hurricane Irma hits the state.
Florida Power & Light Company said that nearly 1.1 million customers statewide were without power Sunday morning.
About 574,000 of those outages were in Miami-Dade County, while there were 360,000 in Broward and nearly 136,000 in Palm Beach County.
The massive storm made landfall in the Florida Keys, and its center was forecast to move up the state's Gulf Coast. But the effects are being felt far from the center because of Irma's size.