The winds of Hurricane Irma began to be felt in the Florida Keys and the Sunshine State’s mainland Saturday afternoon, as forecasters predicted the center of the storm would strike the Keys, southwestern Florida and the Tampa Bay region starting Sunday.
Irma had been downgraded to a Category 3 storm as it raked the coast of Cuba Saturday morning, but it was expected to get its strength back over the ultra-toasty Florida Straits and hit the peninsula as a dangerous Category 4 storm.
“You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the evacuation zones ahead of the storm’s predicted arrival.
As of 4 p.m. Saturday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) placed Irma about 145 miles southeast of Key West with winds up to 125 miles per hour. The center said the storm was moving west at nine miles per hour and warned that “Major hurricane force winds [were] expected over the Florida Keys at daybreak.”
Nearly 30,000 people had lost power, mostly in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as the wind began gusting.
Irma was expected to hit the lower Florida Keys on Sunday morning, the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon and the Tampa region on Sunday night into Monday morning, according to NHC meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
The latest forecasts have spared the Miami area from getting the core of the storm, but Feltgen warned South Floridians could still see 20 inches of rain [and] storm surge.”
“We’re going to have a hurricane here [in Miami],” said Feltgen, who added that he worries people will misinterpret the forecast track change that puts Miami out of the predicted area for Irma’s eye.
The westward swing in the hurricane’s projected path overnight caught many on Florida’s Gulf coast off guard. By late morning, few businesses in St. Petersburg and its barrier islands had put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals groused about the change in the forecast.
“For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we’re now told it’s coming up the west coast,” said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. “As usual, the weatherman, I don’t know why they’re paid.”
With the new forecast, Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, ordered 260,000 people to leave, while Georgia scaled back evacuation orders for some coastal residents.
On Saturday, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Highway Patrol began allowing motorists to drive on the shoulders of Interstate 4, a major east-west highway connecting Tampa and Orlando.
In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the U.S., about 6.4 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state’s population — were warned to leave. Gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, but Scott has so far resisted calls to reverse the flow of the lanes.
For decades, disaster officials and meteorologists have put the Tampa region as one of their worst-case scenarios, along with Miami, New Orleans, Houston and New York. The other four cities have been hit in the last 25 years but Tampa has not been hit by a major hurricane since 1921 when its population was about 10,000, Feltgen said. Now it has around 3 million people.
“It’s certainly one of those metropolitan areas where we have one of the greatest concerns, particularly with storm surge, particularly with inexperience,” Feltgen said.
Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach especially worries about storm surge on the west coast, calling southwest Florida “surge central.”
“The surge damage is going to be bad,” Klotzbach said. “That honestly more than the wind is going to be the story.”
Looking at hurricane center storm surge maps splashed with bright yellows and reds for deep surges, Klotzbach said Naples makes him especially nervous.
“Look at Naples, the entire town of Naples is underwater,” Klotzbach said. “That is horrible. God that looks awful.”
The hurricane center forecasts 8 to 12 feet of storm surge in extreme southwestern Florida, an area that includes Naples. Experts say the area from Venice to Captiva Island will get about 5 to 8 feet with the Tampa Bay region getting about 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) further north. Southeast Florida up to Boca Raton can expect 5 to 10 feet of storm surge, with areas further north on the east coast of Florida forecast to get 2 to 4 feet of storm surge.
High wind, tornadoes and heavy rainfall of up to 20 inches are forecast for most of Florida.
Overall, it will likely be less costly if Irma hits the west rather than east coast because the east coast has more people and more buildings, said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
But with hurricane-force winds that can stretch more than 100 miles wide, all of Florida can be under Irma at any given time, McNoldy said.
Meteorologists still disagree about how strong Irma will be when it hits Florida. Maue sees Irma strengthening a lot more over “bathtub”-like warm waters that are pushing 90 degrees. The Hurricane Center projects the storm hitting as a Category 4 storm, but Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private Weather Underground, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Irma hit as a Category 3 hurricane.
In Key West, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud sought refuge in a senior center with her husband, granddaughter and dog. The streets were nearly empty, shops were boarded up and the wind started to blow.
“Tonight, I’m sweating,” she said. “Tonight, I’m scared to death.”
Some 54,000 people crowded 320 shelters across Florida. At Germain Arena not far from Fort Myers, on Florida’s southwestern corner, thousands waited in a snaking line for hours to gain a spot in the hockey venue-turned-shelter.
“We’ll never get in,” Jamilla Bartley lamented as she stood in the parking lot.
The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
Major tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, all prepared to close Saturday. The Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports shut down, and those in Orlando and Tampa planned to do the same later in the day.
With winds that peaked at 185 mph, Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic. Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, it could still prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.