First hurricane-force winds hit the Keys as Irma strengthens in trek toward west Florida

The Florida Keys began to feel the wrath of Hurricane Irma on Saturday night as the powerful storm headed on a collision course with the western coast of Florida, which braced for a potentially devastating day of deadly winds and surging seas.

Irma was expected to unleash its full fury of 130-mph winds sometime around sunrise over Key West, with the storm picking up speed and tracking possibly toward St. Petersburg for its landfall on the mainland.

Hurricane-force gusts were already blasting the spindly islands of the Keys on Saturday night, while escalating winds, driving rain and isolated tornadoes surged across Florida on the massive storm’s leading edge.

Miami, which on Friday had launched a massive evacuation in anticipation of a direct hit, was breathing easier as the storm tracked west — yet Irma’s 350-mile-wide girth meant the city was still in for 90-mph winds and a storm surge of 3 to 6 feet.

Nearly 7 million people were advised to evacuate. Many of those on the west coast were unable to flee because, with the storm’s change of direction, the warning came too late.

And the storm continued to perplex: News early in the day that it would charge toward Naples and Fort Myers changed by Saturday night to suggest it would track northward offshore in the Gulf of Mexico for a time and make landfall farther north, near St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The storm also gained power as it inched northward, and by early Sunday regained its designation as a Category 4 hurricane.

State transportation officials allowed cars to use the shoulders traveling the bumper-to-bumper highway out of Tampa; in Naples and Fort Myers, where many buildings weren’t constructed to withstand the expected storm surge, people fled to crowded shelters by the thousands.

“The storm is here,” Gov. Rick Scott said. “Hurricane Irma is now impacting our state. … This is a deadly storm and the state has never seen anything like it.”

The massive movement of water onto ordinarily dry land that is expected could have life-threatening consequences, state and federal officials warned.

“There is a serious threat of significant storm-surge flooding along the entire west coast of Florida and this has increased to 15 feet above ground level,” Scott said. “Fifteen feet is devastating and will cover your house.”

The National Weather Service warned that the storm was so large that hurricane-force winds could be expected throughout south and central Florida — no matter which side of the state one was on.

“This is as real as it gets,” the service said in a statement.

Landfall on Florida’s west coast would bring winds of about 120 mph, the National Weather Service said late Saturday night.

People along Florida’s western coast spent the day scrambling for shelter.

Near Naples, people waited in an hours-long line to get inside the Germain Arena in Estero, which had become a 7,500-bed shelter. Many of them had avoided such shelters in previous storms and would not have been there Saturday if their neighborhoods hadn’t abruptly been evacuated.

The evacuation zone grew so large by Saturday morning that even those who had made arrangements to stay in hotels were sent to shelters because the hotels were being evacuated.

Staying at home was out of the question for Elizabeth and John Simler, whose house is built on land about 5 feet above sea level on Sanibel Island, with its stilts boosting the home an additional 10 feet.

They had prepared, they thought.

“We had a very fine hotel reservation,” said Elizabeth, 57. “We did not expect to be in this line [at the shelter].”

The hotel alerted them only hours before that guests were being turned away.

Lou Fusco bailed on his hotel before it could bail on him.

“They said if there is a forced evacuation, you will have to leave,” he said. “So I said, ‘If that happens, then where the hell am I going to go?’”

Even in Miami, residents were worried about what possible 90-mph winds would do to the city.

In downtown Miami Beach, Jose Toledo, a 27-year-old sound design engineer, said he was moving out of his ninth-floor apartment along the waterfront because it didn't have shutters.

“We're going to stay in my office because it's safer there,” he said while emerging for a few last-minute supplies. “The construction down here isn't good. I'm worried about things flying off the buildings ... and you've got all these construction sites with loose stuff on the ground. It could be dangerous for sure.”

About 75,000 people were registered at shelters by Saturday night.

As the first heavy winds blew in, there were reports of electrical transformers exploding and downed trees.

As of Saturday night, almost 200,000 homes had lost power, and officials have predicted that total outages could reach 4 million before Irma heads into Georgia on Monday.

Hurricane warnings were issued along the east and west coasts of Florida, with hurricane watches pending in Georgia and lower South Carolina. Tropical storm watches were declared along the Florida Panhandle and mid-coastal South Carolina.

Seven counties in South Florida were under a tornado watch; a full-out warning was issued in the Miami-Dade County area after two tornadoes were spotted there. More counties were expected to be added as the initial bands from the storm reached those areas.

Several cities, including Miami, were imposing nighttime curfews as the storm approached. Most central Florida counties planned to do the same Sunday night.

Every major airport in Florida was closed with the exception of Tallahassee and Pensacola. Tallahassee planned to shut down Monday.

 

Saturday’s urgency was foreshadowed by the damage done to Cuba on Friday and Saturday and other Caribbean islands earlier in the week. The death toll was at least 25.

Cuba's meteorological agency reported that Irma came ashore Friday night in central Camaguey province, home to the country’s third-largest city, with winds so strong they destroyed measurement instruments.

Hurricane-strength winds were later recorded in the northern half of Camaguey. Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the province in 85 years, according to a state media radio station. Damage was reported across the province, the station said: roofs torn off, trees downed and power disconnected.

In the province of Holguin, some families took shelter in caves to ride out the storm.

Full coverage of Hurricane Irma »

“No one wants to leave the house, only silence is interrupted by gusts of wind and rain,” Yoani Sanchez, who runs a Havana-based digital news service, 14ymedio, tweeted about the situation in Camaguey.

Sanchez posted photos of people crowding the streets of Havana to pray. She reported that supplies were running low.

Irma was eventually downgraded to Category 3 before it headed for Florida on Saturday.

The storm is one of three hurricanes cycling through the warm September waters. Hurricane Katia struck the eastern coast of Mexico early Saturday as a Category 1 storm. Luis Felipe Puente, head of Mexico's national emergency services agency, said two people were killed by the hurricane, which roared onshore in Veracruz state, pelting the region with intense rains and winds.

Katia quickly lost strength after hitting land and was downgraded to a minimal tropical storm with winds of about 35 mph. The storm could bring 3 to 6 inches of additional rain to a region with a history of flooding and deadly mudslides.

Hurricane Jose continued to churn as a Category 4 storm in the northeast Caribbean. It is expected to affect the islands of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, but warnings have been lifted for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. The storm will move north into the Atlantic and not be a factor.

Times staff writer Halper reported from Naples. Times staff writer Cherwa reported from Orlando. Special correspondent Len Neuhaus contributed reporting from Miami.Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed reporting from Houston. Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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UPDATES:

11:15 p.m.: The story was updated with news that the storm is now a Category 4 hurricane once again.

10:50 p.m.: The story was updated with a revised forecast in the hurricane’s track.

8:40 p.m.: The story was updated with additional details throughout, including a revised forecast of the hurricane’s wind speeds.

5 p.m.: The story was updated with the latest forecast.

3:35 p.m. The story was updated with information on the new trajectory of the storm, revised forecasts and interviews with Florida residents.

10:15 a.m.: The story was updated with an interview with a resident of downtown Miami Beach.

9:50 a.m.: The story was updated with details of the damage in Cuba.

9:45 a.m.: This story was updated with new storm surge forecasts.

8:20 a.m.: This article was updated with revised wind speed forecasts.

This article was originally published at 7:45 a.m.

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