DEVELOPING: Hurricane Irma gathered new strength early Sunday as it approached the Florida Keys – regaining Category 4 status as the storm that left a deadly path of destruction across the Caribbean swirled on a projected path that puts Florida’s west coast under threat for a direct hit.
In its 7 a.m. ET advisory, the National Hurricane Center said the storm was about 15 miles southeast of Key West, with sustained winds of 130 miles per hour, and headed for the Florida peninsula northwest at 8 mph.
Irma will be making landfall in the Florida Keys around 8 a.m., according to Fox News Meteorologist Adam Klotz.
The latest forecasts project Irma will hug Florida’s western coast off Fort Myers through the day Sunday, with the eye wall reaching the Tampa Bay area by the end of the day.
“One of the biggest concerns with Irma is the storm surge, areas from Naples to Fort Myers will see a surge as high as 15 feet,” Klotz said Sunday.
The first hurricane-force winds arrived in the Florida Keys shortly before 11 p.m. ET Saturday, bending palm trees and spitting rain as the storm swirled north. The National Weather Service in Key West issued an extreme wind warning in effect through 9:15 a.m. as Irma’s eye wall approached, saying “swaths of tornado-like damage likely.”
One of the biggest concerns with Irma is the storm surge, areas from Naples to Fort Myers will see a surge as high as 15 feet
In Florida’s southernmost city, the streets emptied and shops were boarded up before the wind started to howl.
“Tonight, I’m sweating. Tonight I’m scared to death,” 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud, who sought refuge in a senior center in Key West with her husband, granddaughter and dog, told the Associated Press.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said early Sunday “life threatening storm surge” is occurring now in the Keys, and is expected to begin in Southwest Florida.
Even before Irma’s strongest winds arrived in Florida, more than 4300,000 homes and businesses in Florida had already lost electrical power.
Florida Power & Light Company said that about 430,000 customers were without power Sunday morning. Miami-Dade County had the most outages with about 250,000. Broward County had 130,000 outages. Palm Beach County had more than 40,000 outages.
The utility said that it has mobilized crews and is working to restore power as it can. The utility has said it has assembled the largest pre-storm workforce in U.S. history, with more than 16,000 people ready to respond.
Meanwhile, most of Florida’s major airports – including those in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando – were closed.
On Saturday night an estimated 70,000 Floridians huddled in shelters as Irma closed in on the Keys.
“This is your last chance to make a good decision,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the state’s evacuation zones, which encompassed a staggering 6.4 million people, or more than 1 in 4 people in the state.
Despite the storm’s westward shift, Miami was not out of danger. Because the storm’s damaging winds stretch 350 to 400 miles wide, forecasters said the metro area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening gusts and a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet.
Growing threat to Tampa Bay area
The new course by Irma poses a greater threat to the twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as Naples’ mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center’s retirement homes, and Sanibel Island’s shell-filled beaches.
The course change from Florida’s east coast caught many off guard and triggered a major round of evacuations. Many west coast businesses had yet to put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals grumbled about the forecast.
“I’m terrified,” Nicole Manuel told the Tampa Bay Times. “I keep on hearing different things, different changes. How fast is it coming? When is it even coming? It’s different every time I see the TV.”
Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and leery residents watched a projected track that could still shift to spare, or savage, parts of the state.
Tampa Electric Company’s top executive said Irma may cause up to 70 percent of its customers could lose power during the storm, FOX 13 Tampa reported.
With the new forecast, Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, ordered 260,000 people to leave, while Georgia scaled back evacuation orders for some residents of the state’s Atlantic shore. Motorists heading inland from the Tampa area were allowed to drive on the shoulder.
Local leaders put out a warning to anyone living in an evacuation zone, including some of their own neighbors.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman told FOX 13 her home is an evacuation zone, and many of her neighbors have decided to stay put.
“That is scary,” she said. “They think they can tough this out.”
Miami spared direct hit, but danger remains
The most populated area of the state will not feel the brunt from Irma’s most powerful winds, but Miami area was not spared from its effects.
Howling winds and downpours battered Miami-Dade County early Sunday, causing street flooding and downing trees as bands from the storm lashed the area.
Several tornadoes were also reported in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, including a waterspout that formed on Fort Lauderdale Beach, WSVN reported.
In the southern part of Miami-Dade County, a 50-year-old tree was uprooted by winds from the storm and tell on top of one resident’s home in Cutler Bay.
“It’s an oak tree. They’re supposed to have deep roots,” Arturo Vargas told WSVN. “It was here during the last hurricane, so we imagined that it would still be here.”
With Irma taking more of a Western turn, some residents said they were surprised the storm is still capable of so much damage.
“We weren’t expecting this at all,” said Vargas.
The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
“We’ve got over 7,000 soldiers standing by ready to support the citizens,” Florida National Guard Brig Gen Ralph Ribas told Fox News.
In the Orlando area, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World all prepared to close Saturday. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay was closed.
“This is a real deal bad storm,” Polk County Sheriff Grade Judd told FOX & Friends weekend.
Irma could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen there in 25 years.
Irma was expected to drop 20 inches of rain on Florida and southeast Georgia through Monday, Reuters reported, and cause insurance losses of as much as $50 billion.
Prior to eyeing Florida, the storm slammed Cuba, where it was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall there since 1932, Reuters reported, citing state media.
Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.
Boat captain Ray Scarborough was 12 when Andrew hit and remembers lying on the floor in a hall as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house. This time, he and his girlfriend left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north for Orlando.
“They said this one is going to be bigger than Andrew. When they told me that,” he said, “that’s all I needed to hear.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.