Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida Keys as Category 4 storm, takes aim at state’s west coast
DEVELOPING: Hurricane Irma roared onto the Florida Keys Sunday morning, making landfall as a Category 4 storm and flooding parts of downtown Miami with storm surge while taking aim at Florida’s west coast with the threat of a direct hit.
In its 2 p.m. ET advisory, the National Hurricane Center said the storm, now downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane, was located about 35 miles south-southeast of Naples, with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour, and headed north at 12 mph.
The nearly 400-mile-wide storm made landfall at Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys at 9:10 am ET, the NHC said. A 92 mph wind gust was recently reported at the Federal Aviation Administration station at Miami International Airport.
“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Gov. Rick Scott said on “Fox News Sunday.”
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. At least 28 people have died as Hurricane Irma ravaged the Caribbean this week, destroying buildings and uprooting trees on its path toward Florida.
“We know we are ground zero for this storm,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at a news conference announcing a curfew that will take effect at 6 p.m. Sunday. “We have avoided it for 90 years, but our time has come to be ready.”
“Depending on the exact track of Irma, locations in the hurricane warning areas could see devastating to catastrophic impacts, including structural damage and widespread power and communication outages from high winds.”
Irma’s wind field is large, with hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 80 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 220 miles, according to Fox News Senior Meteorologist Janice Dean. Those hurricane-force winds will expand eastward across the entire peninsula.
“Depending on the exact track of Irma, locations in the hurricane warning areas could see devastating to catastrophic impacts, including structural damage and widespread power and communication outages from high winds,” Dean said. “The National Weather Service said that areas in the hurricane warning could be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
“It is important to remember not to just focus on the forecast cone, as it does not take into account the large size of Irma, with dangerous impacts expected outside of the path of the center,” Dean added.
Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 185 mph last week. This marks the first year on record the continental U.S. has had two Category 4 hurricane landfalls in the same year.
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. There will be a tornado threat across Florida for the next 36 hours, according to Fox News Chief Meteorologist Rick Reichmuth.
In Palm Bay, Florida, located about 74 miles southeast of Orlando, police said six mobile homes were destroyed by a tornado, but no injuries were reported.
The National Weather Service in Miami said a “fast-moving tornado” was reported at Fort Lauderdale International Airport crossing Interstate 595, but no information of possible damage was immediately available.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said on Sunday he has requested a major disaster declaration from President Trump and warned that devastating storm surges will hit the western coast of Florida as Hurricane Irma churns northward.
“There is a serious threat of significant storm surge flooding along the entire west coast of Florida and 15 feet of impact above ground level in southwest Florida,” he said at a news conference.
A Florida deputy who was helping at a Hurricane Irma evacuation center was killed in a head-on crash with a corrections officer Sunday morning.
After Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, more than 1.5 million homes and businesses in Florida lost power as of Sunday afternoon.
Florida Power & Light Company said Miami-Dade County had the most outages in South Florida with about 680,000 in the dark. Broward County had 450,060 outages. Palm Beach County had more than 214,000 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.
An estimated 127,000 Floridians huddled in shelters Sunday as Irma landfall on the Keys. The state’s evacuation zones encompass a staggering 6.4 million people, or more than 1 in 4 people in the state. Facebook has also activated its Safety Check service that lets users notify friends and family that they are safe.
President Donald Trump has spoken with the governors of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee as Hurricane Irma moves north, according to the White House.
The White House said Trump spoke with the officials Sunday from the Camp David presidential retreat, where he was spending the weekend and has been in regular contact with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio.
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.
“Although we haven’t been hit in over 90 years, we have trained for years to be ready for this day,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told FOX & Friends Weekend.
The city of St. Petersburg, Florida, is enacting an emergency curfew beginning at 5 p.m. ET due to severe conditions from Irma, while Tampa will have a curfew going into effect at 6 p.m. ET.
Fox News Chief Meteorologist Rick Reichmuth said the Naples area is under the risk of 10 to 15 feet of storm surge.
“Most of the surge on the shore is likely after the storm passes,” Reichmuth said.
Tampa Electric Company’s top executive said Irma may cause up to 70 percent of its customers to 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 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.”
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.
Two people died early Sunday in a head-on crash in Hardee County, located southeast of Tampa, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Agency spokesman Greg Bueno told the Associated Press it wasn’t immediately clear what role the weather may have played. He says troopers are investigating the crash and no further details were immediately available, but the area is starting to feel the effects of Hurricane Irma.
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, causing street flooding and downing trees as bands from the storm lashed the area.
At least one crane collapsed Sunday morning in Miami as Irma’s powerful winds lashed southern Florida, and officials warn there could be more such incidents given the area’s building boom and the intensifying conditions. The crane came crashing down in downtown Miami next to the federal prison in front of the courthouse, WSVN reported.
In downtown Miami near the Biscayne Bay, storm surge generated from the monster storm flooded parts of the downtown area.
Stop signs were down, some trees were bent, while others were entirely uprooted, and there is a significant amount of debris flying across the downtown.
This part of Miami has a lot of active construction sites, including cranes and equipment that have been blowing around and dangerously close to nearby condos and sky-high hotels.
Several tornadoes were also reported in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, including a waterspout that formed on Fort Lauderdale Beach, WSVN reported.
In Miami Beach, city officials said due to “extreme sustained winds rescue teams are no longer able to respond.”
In the southern part of Miami-Dade County, a 50-year-old tree was uprooted by winds from the storm and fell 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 closed Saturday. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay was also closed.
“This is a real deal bad storm,” Polk County Sheriff Grade Judd told FOX & Friends weekend.
Prior to eyeing Florida, the storm slammed Cuba, where it was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall there since 1932. As Irma left Cuba late Saturday and directed its winds toward Florida, authorities on the island were assessing the damage and warning of staggering damage to keys off the northern coast studded with all-inclusive resorts and cities, as well as farmland in central Cuba.
Residents of “the capital should know that the flooding is going to last more than 36 hours, in other words, it is going to persist,” Civil Defense Col. Luis Angel Macareno said late Saturday, adding that the waters had reach at about 2,000 feet into Havana.
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.
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.”
Fox News’ Barnini Chakraborty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.