Watch PIX11 News special coverage: Hurricane Irma
[Breaking news update at 7:24 a.m. ET]
The northern eyewall of Hurricane Irma has reached the Florida Keys, the National Hurricane Center tweeted Sunday morning. As of 7 a.m. ET, the hurricane’s eye was about 15 miles southeast of Key West, the NHC said.
[Previous story, published at 7:14 a.m. ET]
Hurricane Irma strengthened into a Category 4 storm as it inched closer to Florida, where hundreds of thousands are without power hours before one of the most powerful storms in the Atlantic hits.
Irma was 40 miles southeast of Key West early Sunday with winds of 130 mph. It’s expected to pass the Florida Keys between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.
But already, outer rain bands hammered the Florida Keys with whipping winds, heavy rain and powerful surges as it tore itself away from Cuba’s northern coast.
“It’s going from crappy to worse,” said John Hines, who did not evacuate and stayed in his home in the Key West, at the southern end of the island chain that stretches off the tip of the Florida peninsula.
Hines said there’s some flooding outside his house, but from the rain, not the storm surge.
“All the interior doors are starting to rattle now, sounds like someone is knocking on the front door,” he said. “The winds are picking up. It’s only going to get worse as it gets closer.”
Almost the entire state of Florida is under a hurricane warning affecting at least 36 million people, with concerns of devastating gales, heavy rain and life-threatening storm surge.
Those who did not evacuate ahead of the storm are in danger, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Saturday.
“You’re on your own until we can actually get in there and it’s safe,” he told CNN.
“The message has been clear: The Keys are going to be impacted. There is no safe area within the Keys. And you put your life in your own hands by not evacuating.”
Here are the latest developments:
— About 380,000 customers in Florida are without power, Gov. Rick Scott said Sunday.
— A majority of those who lost power are in Monroe County, where Key West is, and Miami-Dade County.
— Hurricane warnings were extended north along Florida’s west coast as far away as Perry. They include the Florida Keys, Fernandina Beach and Lake Okeechobee.
— A storm surge warning wraps around the state, from Brevard County to Tampa Bay.
— More than 72,000 people have moved into more than 390 shelters across the state, the governor’s office said.
— At least 24 deaths have been blamed on Irma in the Caribbean islands, where it hit fast before marching toward Florida.
‘You can’t survive these storm surges’
The major concern is the storm surge, which can cause devastating flooding and could reach as high as 15 feet in some areas, officials warned.
“You can’t survive these storm surges,” Scott said.
Key West business owner Jason Jonas said he stayed behind because he’s in a home that is “built like a bunker.”
“It’s pretty much the only reason I considered staying here because I knew that I had a pretty good chance of making it through this thing,” he said.
“We’re 30 plus feet above sea level and in a place that’s built to withstand 225 mph winds — I mean that’s a better chance than being exposed out on the highway in traffic trying to make it to Georgia.”
Irma hit Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province late Friday as a Category 5 hurricane before it weakened.
Other cities will feel storm’s punch
Several Florida cities are in or near the forecast path of the storm’s eye.
The storm will be devastating for central Florida, Tampa, Fort Myers, Naples and Key West, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said storm surge is the main fear.
“We’re going to get through the winds, we’ll get through the rain, depending on what the level of surge is,” he said. “But more importantly, the surge will occur tomorrow at the same time we have a high tide — so that compounds the problem.”
In Fort Myers, where storm surge warnings are in effect, Evanson Ngai stayed up all night, tracking the hurricane.
“I’ve tried to get some sleep but I can’t. Just the nervousness, trying to keep an eye on it to see if its track will change,” he said.
Ngai plans to crouch in the bathtub when it makes landfall.
“Right now, it’s a little bit of gusty winds and some rain,” he said early Sunday. “We’ve moved everything away from windows. We’re hoping for the best — we’ve bought nonperishable foods and water, and we have a flashlight.”
Florida Power and Light estimated 3.4 million of its customers could be without power at some point during Irma, the company’s largest number of outages ever.
“We think this could be the most challenging restoration in the history of the US,” company spokesman Chris McGrath said.
Other states may be affected
Officials in other states are also keeping an eye on Irma. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation for some barrier islands, while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded a state of emergency to include 94 counties.
The National Weather Service in Atlanta issued a tropical storm watch for the area Monday and Tuesday. Schools in the state planned to close Monday.
Alabama and North Carolina may also be affected, FEMA said