Hurricane Irma’s strong winds and outer rain bands lashed the Florida Keys on Saturday as the Category 3 storm pushed toward the state amid dire warnings of devastating gales, heavy rain and a potentially deadly storm surge.
With sustained winds at 125 mph, Irma was lingering along Cuba’s northern coast Saturday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm is expected to strengthen again and remain a powerful hurricane when it reaches Florida.
Irma’s eye was due to strike part of the Florida Keys on Sunday morning before driving up the state’s southwestern coast Sunday afternoon, according to the hurricane center.
As much as 20 inches of rain was predicted through Wednesday across the Florida peninsula and southeast Georgia, and maximum wind gusts above 100 mph are expected in much of western Florida.
But the major concern among officials was the storm surge, which is like a sustained high tide that can cause devastating flooding. A storm surge warning is in place for the Florida Keys, Tampa Bay, and an extensive stretch of coastline wrapping most of the way around the state.
Florida’s southwest coast from Cape Sable to Captiva could see “catastrophic” storm surge flooding of 10 to 15 feet, the hurricane center said, while the area around Tampa Bay could see five to eight feet of storm surge.
“This will be a devastating storm for central Florida, Tampa, Fort Myers, Naples (and) all the way down to Key West,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Saturday afternoon.
By noon Saturday, it was too late for residents to leave specified evacuation zones in southwestern Florida, Gov. Rick Scott had said hours earlier.
“The storm is here,” he said. “This is a deadly storm, and our state has never seen anything like it.”
An estimated 6.3 million residents have been ordered to evacuate, the Florida Division of Emergency Management said. The mass evacuations have sent throngs onto jammed highways heading north and created a severe gas shortage in some parts the state.
Irma hit Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province late Friday as a Category 5 hurricane. The storm’s violent gusts destroyed the instrument used to measure wind strength, Cuba’s meteorological agency reported. Waves as high as 23 feet were recorded, and bigger ones remained a possibility as Irma plodded west, officials said.
Even before hitting Cuba, Irma had proven catastrophic, killing 24 people this week in the Caribbean and leaving entire islands in ruins.
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SOURCE: CNN, Faith Karimi and Eric Levenson