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Hurricane Irma Begins Assault on Florida

Traffic in the Florida Keys before Hurricane Irma hits near Homestead, Florida.Traffic in the Florida Keys before Hurricane Irma hits near Homestead, Florida.

Residents huddled in shelters watching for updates as Hurricane Irma began its assault on Florida early Sunday as a Category 4 storm, lashing the area with winds near 130 mph (215 kph) and drenching rain.

Irma’s northern eyewall reached the lower Florida Keys and the US National Hurricane Center said the hurricane was expected to remain a powerful storm as it moved through the Florida Keys and near the state’s west coast.  

As of 8 am EDT Sunday, the hurricane was centered about 20 miles (30 kilometers) east-southeast of Key West, Florida, and was moving north-northwest at 8 mph (13 kph).

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for a wide swath of Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida. The band of rain and tornado producing cells was moving quickly, officials said. There were no immediate reports of tornadoes touching down.

In the Tampa Bay area, access to all of Pinellas County’s barrier islands, including the popular spring break destination of Clearwater Beach, was shut off.

The leading edge of the immense storm bent palm trees and spit rain across South Florida, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, as the eye approached Key West.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott had warned residents in the state’s evacuation zones Saturday that “this is your last chance to make a good decision.” About 6.4 million people were told to flee.

But because the storm is 350 to 400 miles wide, the entire Florida peninsula was exposed. Forecasters said the greater Miami area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of 4 to 6 feet.

Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph) last week. It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean and as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico’s bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, it was expected to regain strength.

Meteorologists expected Irma to plow into the Tampa Bay area around Monday morning. The area has not been struck by 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.

 

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