FORT MYERS, Fla. (Reuters) - Millions of people huddled in shelters or battened-down homes in Florida on Sunday morning as Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, hit the state with 130-mph winds and catastrophically high seas.
The National Hurricane Center forecast potentially deadly storm surges – water driven ashore by the winds – of up to 15 feet. As the northern edge of the storm reached the Florida Keys archipelago off the tip of southern Florida, lashing rains and winds knocked out power to over a million homes and businesses.
Florida Power & Light (FPL), the biggest power company in Florida, said on its website that over 1,094,000 customers were left without power Sunday. Separately, Keys Energy Services, which serves the Florida Keys, reported 29,000 outages earlier Sunday on its website.
“Pray for us,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said in an ABC News interview as his state braced for the massive storm, which has already left a trail of destruction through the Caribbean.
Irma was a Category 4 hurricane raging in the lower Florida Keys as of 9 a.m. EDT, on a path that will take it up Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast near population centers including Tampa and St. Petersburg, the NHC reported. Forecasters also warned tornadoes could form in large portions of the state.
Irma, which killed at least 22 people as it tore through Caribbean islands toward Florida, has already claimed at least one life in the state. Emergency responders in the Florida Keys said they pulled a man’s body from his pickup truck, which had crashed into a tree in high winds.
A day after hitting Cuba’s northern Coast, Irma was on a path that would take it along Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast near population centers including Tampa and St. Petersburg, the NHC said. Hundreds of thousands of people spent the night in emergency shelters.
Irma was expected to roar up Florida’s western coast through the day on Sunday, with hurricane-force winds extending some 80 miles from its center. Forecasters also warned tornadoes could form in large portions of the state.
“Take action now to protect your life,” the National Weather Service in Key West advised. “This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation.”
Officials in Florida have ordered a total of 6.3 million people, or about a third of the state’s population, to evacuate, creating massive traffic jams on highways and overcrowding shelters.
Irma was likely to cause billions of dollars in damage to the third-most-populous U.S. state.
Wind gusts near hurricane force began to batter the Florida Keys late on Saturday, the NHC said, with Key West seeing gusts of up to 89 mph on Sunday morning and water levels about 2 feet above normal.
The NHC has put out a hurricane warning and a tropical storm warning stretching through almost all of Florida into Georgia and South Carolina – an area where more than 20 million people live.
Irma comes just days after Hurricane Harvey dumped record-setting rain in Texas, causing unprecedented flooding, killing at least 60 people and leaving an estimated $180 billion in property damage in its wake. Almost three months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through November.
Tracking models showed Irma would head along Florida’s west coast, slamming the state that is a major tourism hub, with an economy comprising about 5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.