Hurricane Irma roared through the Florida Keys on Sunday with punishing 130-mph winds and began pushing its way north, knocking out power to more than 1.5 million people across the state and collapsing a construction crane over the Miami skyline.
The nearly 400-mile-wide storm is expected to make a slow, ruinous march up Florida’s west coast, straight toward the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area by Monday morning.
Streets emptied across the bottom half of the Florida peninsula, and some 127,000 people huddled in shelters.
“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Gov. Rick Scott said on Fox News.
Flooding, roof damage and floating appliances and furniture were reported in the low-lying Keys, but with the storm still hitting around midday, the full extent of Irma’s wrath was not clear.
There were no immediate confirmed reports of any deaths from the storm.
While the projected track showed Irma raking the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire state — including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — was in extreme peril from the monster storm.
Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to evacuate, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.
About 30,000 people heeded orders to leave the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused, in part because to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.
John Huston, who was riding out the storm at his Key Largo home, was already seeing flooding in his yard before the arrival of high tide. “Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” he said by text message. “Shingles are coming off.”
In downtown Miami, one of two-dozen construction cranes looming over the skyline collapsed atop a high-rise in Irma’s winds. There was no immediate word on any damage or injuries. City officials said it would have taken about two weeks to move the cranes.
A street in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood was reported to be under 2 to 3 feet of water.
Irma made landfall just after 9 a.m. at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles outside Key West, forecasters said. By late morning, it was advancing at about 9 mph toward Florida’s southwestern corner, which includes Naples, Fort Myers and Sarasota.
Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to “resist the urge” to go outside during the eye, the deceptively calm interlude in the middle of a hurricane. “Dangerous winds will follow quickly,” police said in a social-media post.
For days, forecasters had warned that Irma was taking dead aim at the Miami metropolitan area and the rest of Florida’s Atlantic coast. But then Irma made a more pronounced westward shift — the result of what meteorologists said was an atmospheric tug-of-war between weather systems that nudged Irma and determined when it made its crucial right turn into Florida.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of WeatherBell Analytics said that the entire Florida peninsula will be raked by Irma’s right front quadrant — the part of a hurricane that usually brings the strongest winds, storm surge, rain and tornadoes.
Even before the storm arrived, it made a huge swath of the peninsula’s bottom half unrecognizable.
Normally bustling streets were ghost towns. Famed stretches including Duval Street in Key West and Ocean Drive in Miami Beach were shuttered. Sunday church services were called off, and theme parks were closed.
Irma, at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 185 mph, left more than 20 people dead in its wake across the Caribbean.
The Tampa-St. Petersburg area, with a population of about 3 million, has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. The wind was already picking up in St. Petersburg, some 400 miles north the Keys, and people began bracing for the onslaught.
“I’ve been here with other storms, other hurricanes. But this one scares me,” Sally Carlson said she snapped photos of the waves crashing against boats. “Let’s just say a prayer we hope we make it through.”
The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
Forecasters warned that after charting up Florida’s west coast, a weakened Irma could push into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and beyond. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, some 200 miles from the sea.
“Once this system passes through, it’s going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief Brock Long said on Fox News.
With FEMA still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Irma could test the agency’s ability to handle two disasters at the same time.
Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, Irma could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen in the state in 25 years.
Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.
Lush reported from St. Petersburg. Also contributing to this report were Seth Borenstein in Washington; Terry Spencer in Palm Beach County; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee; Terrance Harris and Claire Galofaro in Orlando; and Freida Frisaro, Jason Dearen, Jennifer Kay and David Fischer in Miami.