- Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys at 9:10 a.m. ET Sunday.
- After pummeling the islands, the storm has started its journey up the west coast of Florida.
- Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged Floridians in evacuation zones to leave if they haven’t yet.
- Irma slammed into several Caribbean islands as a Category 5 storm on Wednesday and Thursday, killing at least 23 people.
Many parts of Florida and Georgia are under mandatory evacuation orders.
Hurricane Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key in the Florida Keys at 9:10 a.m. ET on Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center. This is the first time in recorded history that two Category 4 storms have made landfall in the US in the same year.
After pummeling the Keys, the storm has started to move north toward Florida’s Gulf Coast, eyeing population centers including Tampa and St. Petersburg. Irma arrived in Florida after steamrolling several Caribbean islands and leaving at least 22 dead.
Earlier on Sunday, the storm regained strength to become a Category 4 hurricane, with the risk of life-threatening storm surges.
Hurricane warnings are currently in effect for many parts of the Florida coast and some provinces of Cuba. Florida’s hurricane warnings extend from Fernandina Beach south around the peninsula to Indian Pass, and also include the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee, and Florida Bay.
Irma also began spinning up funnel clouds near South Florida on Saturday evening, prompting at least one tornado to touch ground in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park, according to the National Weather Service. Tornado warnings were also issued for Fort Lauderdale, Coral Springs, Pompano Beach and Sunrise in Broward County, as well as parts of Palm Beach County, Hendry Counties, and Miami Dade County.
Storm-surge warnings are in effect from South Santee River southward to Jupiter Inlet and North Miami Beach southward around the Florida peninsula to the Ochlockonee River, as well as in the Florida Keys and Tampa Bay.
If Irma hits Florida at high tide, water levels there are expected to rise to 10 to 15 feet above ground from Cape Sable to Captiva.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a press conference Saturday evening that more than 6.5 million Floridians have been ordered to evacuate, and more than 70,000 have taken refuge in more than 385 shelters. By Sunday morning, that number reached 114,000 people in 500 shelters statewide.
He added that the state could see as much as 18 inches of rain, and the Florida Keys could see up to 25 inches.
“Everyone in Florida needs to find a safe place to go,” Scott said, urging any residents still in evacuation zones to leave. He also urged evacuees to be patient and not return to their homes after Irma passes, until local officials confirm it is safe to do so.
More than 1.3 million homes and businesses had lost power by Sunday morning.
“Millions of Floridians will see major hurricane impacts with deadly, deadly, deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds,” Scott said Saturday morning. “15 feet of impact above ground level — think about that — 15 feet is devastating. It will cover your house.”
President Donald Trump on Saturday evening urged everyone in Irma’s path to “get out of the way.”
“This is a storm of enormous destructive power,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting. “Property is replaceable, but lives are not. And safety has to come first.”
Irma is one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, and has already killed at least 23 people as it wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, according to reports. The storm’s winds are as powerful as those of a tornado, which can tear off roofs, level homes, toss cars, overturn trains, and uproot large trees.
At its strongest, Irma’s wind speeds hovered around 185 mph, with gusts of more than 215 mph.
Initial damage from the storm was observed on Wednesday in Barbuda, an island east of Puerto Rico. Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said Barbuda was “totally demolished,” with 90% of its buildings destroyed. Communication with the island was cut off because of the destruction. As Hurricane Jose approached the island on Friday, Barbuda officials worked to evacuate the entire population of 1,800.
Irma also destroyed an estimated 95% of buildings in parts of St. Martin and devastated popular tourist destinations in St. Barts. It slammed the Virgin Islands before passing just north of Puerto Rico. Winds were still strong enough to cut off power to half of Puerto Rico’s residents, however, and reports suggest some may not regain electricity for months.
Irma is now a Category 4 storm, but officials caution that it should not be referred to as “downgraded” just because it was Category 5 before — it’s still a catastrophic storm with major population centers in its path, and it’s likely to gain more strength before making landfall on the Florida peninsula.
“Irma is expected to make landfall in Florida as an extremely dangerous major hurricane, and will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center,” NHC wrote in its Saturday morning forecast. Both the storm surge and flash-flooding are life-threatening, NHC wrote Sunday.
As seen with Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall late last month as a Category 4 hurricane but caused most of its damage with heavy rain, the number doesn’t always accurately predict a storm’s impact.
I fear that people will say, ‘Oh, it is only Category 4 now, we are safe’ … This would be devastating and potentially deadly.
“I fear that people will say, ‘Oh, it is only Category 4 now, we are safe,'” Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist, wrote early Friday. “This would be devastating and potentially deadly. It is a Category 4 storm with a track that will bring it directly into South Florida with the most populated cities of the region on the dangerous right side of the eye.”
Irma is now passing over some of the warmest water it has encountered, which could help it maintain its intensity or even pick up steam.
The storm also threatens the Caribbean and US with storm surge, a crest of water formed ahead of a storm by powerful winds. The National Hurricane Center suggests that parts of the Bahamas, for example, may see water levels rise 20 feet above a typical high tide, though forecasts differ greatly among regions.
In Havana, waves crested 36 feet on Sunday, forcing Cubans and tourists to evacuate inland.
Irma heads to Florida
The NHC’s latest forecast for Irma shows that after passing directly over the Florida Keys, the storm has started to move to western side of the Peninsula, where it’s likely to make landfall again before affecting the panhandle and heading into Georgia.
Regardless of exactly where the eye makes landfall, Irma is big and powerful enough to affect most of Florida. The storm is almost as large as Texas — wide enough that both coasts could experience hurricane-force winds.
On Sunday morning, storm surge already flooded streets in Miami and high winds caused a massive crane to collapse onto a building.
Most predictive models show the center of the storm coming quite close to a devastating direct hit on Tampa or Ft. Myers.
On Sunday, water from as far away as Tampa was already starting to be sucked out by the storm — all ready to come rushing back in with storm surge.
US and state officials have been urging people to ready their emergency plans and supplies for days — and time has almost run out. Almost 7 million people have been told to evacuate, leading to traffic jams and fuel shortages across the states.
“We are running out of time … You need to go now,” Scott said on CNN Friday morning, urging anyone in an evacuation zone to flee immediately. “This is a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.”
Scott said all Florida residents should be prepared to leave if necessary.
But the large population of elderly and frail residents of the state complicated evacuation efforts, overwhelming shelters.
“We’ve been all over Florida today, seeking shelter,” Jack Shively, 85, told Reuters, after he and his wife were turned away from three locations.
To prepare for Irma, Scott ordered all 7,000 members of Florida’s National Guard to report for duty on Friday morning. President Donald Trump declared states of emergency in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands on Tuesday evening to free up federal resources for a major response to the storm.
Power outages are already beginning to spread in Florida — more than 1.3 million customers are without power, and some areas will likely lack electricity for weeks.
The growth of a monster storm
Irma formed off the coast of western Africa last week and almost immediately started crossing the Caribbean Sea. Phil Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University specializing in Atlantic hurricanes, told Business Insider that a combination of conditions — including a warm tropical Atlantic, a weak wind shear, and a change from drier to wetter weather — made it easy for Irma to pick up strength.
Irma officially became a named storm on August 30 and was classified as a hurricane the next day. Since then, it has gained and kept strength from the moisture of unusually warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its sustained wind speeds of 185 mph for 37 hours set a record for the longest a cyclone has maintained that intensity.
James Belanger, a senior meteorological scientist with The Weather Company — the group behind the Weather Channel and Weather Underground — told Business Insider that it was “possible the storm could strengthen further” as it passes over warm waters near the Bahamas.
“One of the things we need to keep in mind is that some of the guidance is that the storm is going to maintain [strength],” he said.
A busy hurricane season
Irma, the season’s fourth hurricane, has already put the Atlantic far ahead of the average accumulated cyclone energy — a measure of the energy of tropical cyclone systems — for this time of year. Klotzbach said that half of a season’s cyclone energy usually occurs in September. But as of Wednesday, there had already been enough to meet the definition of an average season.
Both Colorado State University and The Weather Company predicted an unusually active hurricane season this year. Irma is the fourth hurricane of 2017, though the average date of the fourth hurricane in a year is September 21. This week, three hurricanes — Irma, Jose, and Katia — were swirling in the Atlantic, though the peak of the season is not until September 10.
Jose, a Category 4 hurricane east of Irma, threatened some of the same Caribbean islands that Irma has already devastated, though it appears likely that it’ll stay to the north of populated areas for now. Katia made landfall in Mexico late Friday night, and has since been downgraded to a tropical depression.
A hurricane’s category is determined by its wind force — here’s what the scale means:
This is a developing story. Find all of Business Insider’s latest Hurricane Irma coverage here.
SEE ALSO: Early photos show Hurricane Irma devastating the Caribbean
DON’T MISS: Here are all the areas in Hurricane Irma’s path and when the storm could arrive
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NOW WATCH: Hurricane Irma slams the Florida Keys — here are the latest updates on the massive storm