MIAMI — The fierce eye of Hurricane Irma roared ashore in Florida on Sunday morning, bringing the full intensity of the storm to bear on the lower Florida Keys before beginning what forecasters say could be a painful journey up the state’s western coastline.
After days of alarming warnings forced millions from their homes and shut down daily life across a wide swath of the southeastern United States, Irma breached the Florida coast on Sunday morning, making landfall just after 9 a.m. at Cudjoe Key.
Irma had already made its presence known across South Florida, causing more than a million power outages and lashing major population centers with rain and wind. The danger is only just beginning, forecasters warn, because the storm will grind along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sunday and could make a second landfall later in the day.
“Today is going to the be the long day,” said Mark DeMaria, deputy acting director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The hurricane center warns that Irma, which has restrengthened into a Category 4 storm, has created an “imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding along much of the Florida west coast.” While Irma’s path is now likely to hew to Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm’s sheer size and reach — hurricane-force winds extend about 80 miles from the center, and tropical storm winds extend out 220 miles — means that those who remain here in southeast Florida are still imperiled by its winds and dangerous storm surge.
Irma is forecast to remain a major hurricane as it approaches the densely populated Tampa Bay area, which experts say is woefully ill-equipped to confront a storm of this size. Many people from Florida’s eastern coast had sought refuge around Tampa in recent days before the storm’s path shifted westward.
“It could make landfall anywhere along the west coast,” Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said in an early morning update Sunday. “It’s really hard to predict where the eye will make landfall on the west coast once it leaves the Keys.”
Irma spent much of Sunday morning over the Florida Keys, the string of islands off the state’s southern coast. The Keys could see up to 25 inches of rainfall and storm surges could wash over the low-lying chain, a popular tourist destination that includes Key West.
“A very dangerous day is unfolding in the Florida Keys and much of West Florida,” Brennan said. “It certainly could inundate the entire island. That’s why everyone in the Keys was urged so strongly to evacuate.”
— NWS Miami (@NWSMiami) September 10, 2017
By midday Sunday, Irma was leaving the Keys and heading toward the southwest coast of Florida, the National Weather Service reported.
Authorities say that more than 6.3 million Floridians — about three in 10 residents statewide — have been ordered to evacuate as Irma’s outer bands began to batter the state. Gov. Rick Scott (R), who has been blunt about the storm’s potential, had residents in evacuation zones to leave their homes immediately, noting at a certain point, nobody would be able to come rescue them.
“This is a life-threatening situation,” Scott said at a news briefing Sunday in Tallahassee, the state’s capital. “The storm is here now.”
While Irma had been downgraded to a Category 3 storm Saturday, it was upgraded again to Category 4 early Sunday. At 5 a.m., weather officials said the storm was plodding northwest at about 8 miles per hour, placing it on pace to reach Naples by about 5 p.m.
Regardless of its ultimate track, all of Florida — which is about 360 miles wide across the panhandle, but less than half as wide across much of the middle of the state — most likely will experience damaging winds, rains, flooding and possibly tornadoes. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for all of southern Florida and the Florida Keys.
The National Weather Service said southwestern Florida could see storm surges up to 15 feet if peak surge happens during high tide. A storm surge warning is in effect for much of the Florida peninsula.
“This is a deadly storm, and our state has never seen anything like it,” Scott said.
Officials across the state imposed curfews, ordering people in Broward County along the southeast coast and Orange County, home to Orlando in Central Florida, to remain home until further notice.
Concerns stretched up the coast, into nearby states where some evacuees sought shelter. About 540,000 people in Georgia and 44,000 in South Carolina also were ordered to evacuate by Sunday evening. Airports throughout Florida and in Savannah, Ga., were closed. Disney World is closed Sunday and Monday, with resort hotels staying open.
At least 70 additional shelters were opened across the state Saturday to deal with the flood of people needing safe haven. Scott said at least 50,000 people are staying in 260 shelters across the state. He also pleaded with nurses to volunteer throughout Florida; the state desperately needs 1,000 nurses in its special-needs shelters.
As storm conditions began to sweep into Miami on Saturday, the bustling city had become a ghost metropolis, with no traffic and few signs of life in most places. By midday, dozens of people crowded Vicky Bakery on Coral Way, the one place for miles that was open. In downtown Miami, cranes spun like toys, and on Sunday morning some reported on social media that cranes in the city were collapsing.
At the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center, Fire Chief Dave Downey said that after the storm passes, his teams will deploy to the Florida Keys and to southwest Florida to assist with rescue efforts. The question, he said, “is how fast can we get into the Keys, how fast can we get into the west coast.” The likelihood that the storm will make a direct hit on the Keys, he said, “terrifies all of us.”
Emergency managers in Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, were forced by the track of the storm to abandon their Emergency Operations Center in Marathon, in the Middle Keys, and relocate to higher ground in Key Largo, at the northern end of the island chain. Downey said he feared that the storm could knock out the Overseas Highway, which would hamper rescue efforts.
That would necessitate mobilizing by air and water. But he said his department’s helicopters had been moved ahead of the storm to Orlando, to keep them from being damaged.
He said he spoke Saturday to a counterpart in Marco Island, a small community south of Naples. “The people who haven’t evacuated, they know who they are and where they are.”
In Estero, on the west coast of Florida, thousands of people wrapped around the massive Germain Arena, which officials opened as a shelter Saturday and has a capacity of 7,000 to 8,000. At least six ambulances have responded to people who were overcome in the muggy, 90-degree heat. Troopers, the National Guard and local police sought out people in wheelchairs and moved them to the front of the line, said Lt. Greg Bueno, public information officer for the Florida Highway Patrol.
Leaning on a cane, Betty Sellers, 68, and her son, Doug, 49, got in line at 9:30 a.m. and were still 100 people away from the front doors. They had driven up to Estero from Naples, because “the shelters were mostly closed there,” she said.
Officials at the Collier County emergency operations center in Naples said 15,000 people have filled its shelters, but they are trying to expand space in each location to accommodate more. Demand exceeded expectations as the forecast showed the area probably taking the full force of Irma’s impact.
The county said it will be difficult to house everyone who needs or wants to evacuate and urged people who can find shelter with friends or family to go there. Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said Saturday afternoon that the county is sheltering 22,000 people. The two counties combined have a population of about 1 million.
Officials also are concerned that wind gusts will send water over the Herbert Hoover Dike that holds back Lake Okeechobee, which covers more than 700 square miles. Evacuations have been ordered for cities and towns on the south side of the lake in Hendry, Palm Beach and Glades counties.
The storm already has heavily damaged some Caribbean islands, devastating
killing at least 22 people. In St. Martin, 25 U.S. citizens were evacuated on a C-130 military aircraft Friday from Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort. Resort officials said another evacuation is expected. Michael Joseph, president of the Red Cross in Antigua and Barbuda, said Barbuda is “uninhabitable” and in a “total blackout” with almost all of its infrastructure destroyed. A Marine expeditionary unit and a Navy dock landing ship arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and patients in need of medical care were evacuated from St. Thomas.
Stein reported from Miami, Lowery and Berman from Washington. Joel Achenbach in Miami, Patricia Sullivan in Estero, Scott Unger in Key West, Leonard Shapiro in Pompano Beach, Lori Rozsa in Gainesville, Rachelle Krygier in Caracas and Sarah Larimer, Lori Aratani, Thomas M. Gibbons-Neff, Steven Mufson, Jason Samenow and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report, which will be updated throughout the day.