PLANTATION, FLA. - Hurricane Irma blasted its way to landfall Sunday in the Florida Keys as a mammoth, Category 4 storm with slashing rain and roaring, sustained winds of 130 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm was forecast to slam northward up the state, generally tracking along the Gulf Coast but bringing the havoc of wind, rain and storm surge across much of the state. In Miami, high winds snapped a construction crane and water swept down some streets like rivers.
Hundreds of thousands of Floridians evacuated ahead of the historic storm, and more than 3 million power customers already were without power early Sunday. Outages were reported in every Florida county along the Atlantic Coast and most along the Gulf Coast as far as Tampa.
"We're going to get through this," a grim but determined Gov. Rick Scott told workers Sunday in the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, adding "We've got a lot of work to do."
IThe landfall at Cudjoe Key marks the first time two consecutive Category 4 hurricanes have hit the United States, following Hurricane Harvey in Texas last month. Irma is also Florida's first major hurricane since Wilma in 2005.
Irma will make at least one more official landfall along Florida's west coast or panhandle later Sunday or early Monday. At 11 a.m. Sunday the storm was 80 miles south-southeast of Naples and moving north at 9 mph, the hurricane center said.
Hours earlier, a shift in Irma's projected track put the Tampa Bay area in line for a direct hit and triggered new mandatory evacuation orders for another quarter-million people. The track, farther west than earlier projections, would make the Tampa-St. Petersburg area the bull's-eye for a major hurricane for the first time in almost a century.
Forecasters warned of 10- to 15-foot storm surges in the Naples area and 5 to 8 feet around Tampa-St. Petersburg.
More than 300 miles north of where Irma made landfall, Sally Carlson tooks pictures of waves crashing against boats in St. Petersburg.
“I’ve been here with other storms, other hurricanes. But this one scares me,” she said. “Let’s just say a prayer we hope we make it through.”
On the East Coast, the weather service lifted the storm surge warning for Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, but the east was far from spared. High winds battered the area overnight, snapping off street signs and downing some palm trees. A large construction crane collapsed in downtown Miami, according to photos and videos posted to Twitter by multiple witnesses, including a National Weather Service employee.
“Heard a loud crack, looked up and saw the crane snapped and falling,” posted witness Gideon Ape.
The weather service confirmed several tornadoes passed through the region, but the extent of the damage was not yet clear. Broward County and its 2 million residents remain under a curfew until 10 a.m. ET Monday.
Still, the town of Davie, population 100,000, reported that a wastewater pump station lost power overnight and was expected to overflow, raising fears that sewage could contaminate standing water in neighborhoods, officials said.
n the Florida Panhandle, Franklin County issued a mandatory evacuation order for all barrier islands and low-lying areas after the storm's likely path shifted west.
In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the U.S., about 6.3 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state’s population — have now been told to clear out from threatened areas, and another 540,000 were directed to move away from the Georgia coast.
Because of the span of the storm is 350 to 400 miles wide, Miami could still feel be pounded by life-threatening hurricane winds. Emergency management officials were concerned that people who evacuated were opting to go back home after Irma's track veered toward the Gulf Coast.
Brevard County Communications Director Don Walker said some people left the county's hurricane shelters when the storm appeared to be angling toward the Gulf Coast. Some asked if they could return, if necessary. The answer is yes, but, ideally, they would stay at the shelter until the storm passes.
"It's still going to be a dangerous situation," Walker said. "Don't make a dumb decision. Stay put until the all-clear is issued by emergency officials." That will likely would be Monday afternoon, at the earliest, he said.
Florida Power and Light , which serves nearly 10 million people in southern Florida, expects about 6 million people will be affected by the storm. About 1.1 million customers statewide already were without power Sunday morning.
The storm has already killed at least 25 people since roaring out of the open Atlantic and chewing through a string of Caribbean islands.
Gov. Rick Scott said 54,000 people had already taken refuge in the more than 320 shelters located in every county outside the highly vulnerable Keys.
Scott pleaded with people in evacuation zones to leave immediately.
Rice and Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Alan Gomez, Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY; Arek Sarkissian, Naples Daily News; The Associated Press
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