FORT MYERS: Hurricane Irma turned its fury toward the Florida Keys on Saturday after setting off one of the largest evacuations of Americans from a storm and completing a destructive march along Cuba’s northern coast.
Irma was expected to rip through Florida’s southern archipelago on Sunday morning as a Category 4 storm, the second-highest designation on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Wind gusts near hurricane force began to batter the Florida Keys late on Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm’s enormity over the past several days has daunted even veteran forecasters. Hurricane force winds extended 70 miles (112 km) from Irma’s centre as it veered toward Florida, a state around 150 miles (240 km) wide.
Irma, which killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean, was considered a life-threatening danger to Florida as well and could inflict a natural disaster causing billions of dollars in damage to the third-most-populous US state.
Tracking models showed Irma would make landfall on the western side of the Florida peninsula and heading up the coast, bringing 130-mph (209 kph) winds, storm surges up to 15 feet (4.6 meters) and flooding in some areas.
Amid urgent warnings from state officials to evacuate before it was too late, downtown Miami was all but abandoned on Saturday. Sheets of rain swept through the deserted city of 400,000 people, forming large puddles in empty streets that are usually filled with tour buses and taxi cabs.
Floridians scramble for safety as Irma closes in
The wind sent a construction crane spinning on the roof of the Miami Worldcenter, a billion dollar mixed-use project near the home of the Miami Heat basketball team and the city’s performing arts centre.
On Florida’s west coast, resident Charley Ball said he expected a storm surge to completely engulf the island of Sanibel where he lives.
“Just left the island and said goodbye to everything I own,” said Ball, 62.