International desk, September 10: The eye of Hurricane Irma has hit Florida’s southern islands as a category four storm, forecasters say.Meanwhile, more than 423,000 electric customers are without power, Florida Power and Light said Sunday.
The storm is expected to pummel the low-lying Keys with winds reaching 130mph (209km/h), before travelling north-west up Florida’s Gulf Coast.
More than 6.3 million people were told to evacuate Florida, with warnings of a huge storm surge that would be “life-threatening” to anyone in its path.
Irma has already devastated parts of the Caribbean with at least 25 deaths.
Extreme winds, around the eye of the hurricane, are expected to last for the next two hours in the Lower Florida Keys area, which includes Key West.
One official had warned staying on the islands would be “almost like suicide”.
As the eye of the storm is expected to move north to mainland Florida, hundreds of thousands of homes in the state are reported to be without power and some 50,000 people have taken refuge in shelters.
Cities such as Tampa and St Petersburg lie in the path of the storm. The Tampa Bay area, with a population of about three million, has not been hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
Florida’s Governor Rick Scott told NBC’s Today Show that though authorities had prepared all week for the arrival of Irma, the prospect of such a large storm surge was “really scary”.
“It’s going from crappy to worse,” said John Hines, who did not evacuate and stayed in his home in the Key West, at the southern end of the island chain that stretches off the tip of the Florida peninsula.
Hines said there’s some flooding outside his house, but from the rain, not the storm surge.
“All the interior doors are starting to rattle now, sounds like someone is knocking on the front door,” he said. “The winds are picking up. It’s only going to get worse as it gets closer.”
“You can’t survive these storm surges,” Scott said.
Key West business owner Jason Jonas said he stayed behind because he’s in a home that is “built like a bunker.”
“It’s pretty much the only reason I considered staying here because I knew that I had a pretty good chance of making it through this thing,” he said.
“We’re 30 plus feet above sea level and in a place that’s built to withstand 225 mph winds — I mean that’s a better chance than being exposed out on the highway in traffic trying to make it to Georgia.”
Mass evacuations sent throngs onto jammed highways heading north and created a severe gas shortage in some parts the state.
Track Hurricane Irma’s path
Irma hit Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province late Friday as a Category 5 hurricane before it weakened.