MIAMI – The fierce eye of Hurricane Irma roared ashore in Florida on Sunday morning, bringing the full intensity of the storm to bear on the lower Florida Keys before beginning what forecasters say could be a painful journey up the state’s western coastline.
After days of alarming warnings forced millions from their homes and shut down daily life across a wide swath of the southeastern United States, Irma breached the Florida coast on Sunday morning, making landfall just after 9 a.m. at Cudjoe Key.
Irma had already made its presence known across South Florida, causing more than a million power outages and lashing major population centers with rain and wind. The danger is only just beginning, forecasters warn, because the storm will grind along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sunday and could make a second landfall later in the day.
“Today is going to the be the long day,” said Mark DeMaria, deputy acting director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The hurricane center warns that Irma, which has restrengthened into a Category 4 storm, has created an “imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding along much of the Florida west coast.” While Irma’s path is now likely to hew to Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm’s sheer size and reach – hurricane-force winds extend about 80 miles from the center, and tropical storm winds extend out 220 miles – means that those who remain in southeast Florida are still imperiled by its winds and dangerous storm surge.
Irma is forecast to remain a major hurricane as it approaches the densely populated Tampa Bay area, which experts say is woefully ill-equipped to confront a storm of this size. Many people from Florida’s eastern coast had sought refuge around Tampa in recent days before the storm’s path shifted westward.
“It could make landfall anywhere along the west coast,” Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said in an early morning update Sunday. “It’s really hard to predict where the eye will make landfall on the west coast once it leaves the Keys.”
Irma spent much of Sunday morning over the Florida Keys, the string of islands off the state’s southern coast. The Keys could see up to 25 inches of rainfall and storm surges could wash over the low-lying chain, a popular tourist destination that includes Key West.
“A very dangerous day is unfolding in the Florida Keys and much of West Florida,” Brennan said. “It certainly could inundate the entire island. That’s why everyone in the Keys was urged so strongly to evacuate.”
Authorities say that more than 6.3 million Floridians – about three in 10 residents statewide – have been ordered to evacuate as Irma’s outer bands began to batter the state. Gov. Rick Scott, R, who has been blunt about the storm’s potential, urged residents in evacuation zones to leave their homes immediately, noting that at a certain point, nobody would be able to come rescue them.
“Once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you,” Scott said Saturday at a news conference in Sarasota.
While Irma had been downgraded to a Category 3 storm Saturday, the storm was upgraded again to Category 4 early Sunday. At 5 a.m., weather officials said the storm was plodding northwest at about 8 miles per hour, placing it on pace to reach Naples by about 5 p.m.
Regardless of its track, all of Florida – which is about 360 miles wide – most likely will experience damaging winds, rains, flooding and possibly tornadoes. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for all of southern Florida and the Florida Keys.
The National Weather Service said southwestern Florida could see storm surges up to 15 feet if peak surge happens during high tide. A storm surge warning is in effect for much of the Florida peninsula.
“This is a deadly storm, and our state has never seen anything like it,” Scott said.
Officials across the state imposed curfews, ordering people in Broward County along the southeast coast and Orange County, home to Orlando in Central Florida, to remain home until further notice.
Concerns stretched up the coast, into nearby states where some evacuees sought shelter. About 540,000 people in Georgia and 44,000 in South Carolina also were ordered to evacuate by Sunday evening. Airports throughout Florida and in Savannah, Georgia, were closed.
At least 70 additional shelters were opened across the state Saturday to deal with the flood of people needing safe haven. Scott said at least 50,000 people are staying in 260 shelters across the state.
At the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center, Fire Chief Dave Downey said that after the storm passes, his teams will deploy to the Florida Keys and to southwest Florida to assist with rescue efforts. The question, he said, “is how fast can we get into the Keys, how fast can we get into the west coast.”
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