Irma, packing maximum sustained winds of 130 miles (215 kilometers) per hour, was upgraded overnight to a Category 4 storm as it closed in on the Keys, the National Hurricane Center said. Six million people – one third of the state’s population – have been ordered to evacuate their homes ahead of the monster storm, AFP reported.
The eye of the hurricane was 20 miles east-southeast of Key West as of 8 a.m. local time (1200 GMT), threatening dangerous storm surges up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) – enough to cover a house.
“EVERYONE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS... IT IS TIME TO HUNKER DOWN,” the National Weather Service (NWS) warned before the hurricane rammed into the tropical islands, popular as a destination for fishing, boating and scuba diving.
Worst winds yet to come
For those still at home, it was too late to flee the wrath of one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to slam storm-prone Florida, after cutting a path of devastation across the Caribbean.
In Key West, police opened a “shelter of last resort” for those who had ignored evacuation orders.
The cities of Naples, Fort Myers and the densely populated peninsulas of Tampa Bay on Florida’s west coast were in the crosshairs of the historic storm, which was churning slowly northwest at eight miles per hour.
“It’s going to be horrible,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said of Irma on NBC television on Sunday morning. “Now we have to hunker down and watch out for each other.”
More than 430,000 homes and businesses were already without power, mainly in southern Florida, according to utility company Florida Power and Light, which said it had "safely shut down" one of two nuclear reactors at its Turkey Point power plant.
At least 25 killed
At least 25 people have been killed since Irma began its march through the Caribbean, smashing through a string of islands from tiny Barbuda on Wednesday, to the tropical paradises of St. Barts and St. Martin, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos.
Terrified Cubans who rode out Irma in coastal towns – after it made landfall Friday as a maximum-strength Category 5 storm on the Camaguey archipelago – reported "deafening" winds, uprooted trees and power lines, and blown rooftops.
There were no immediate reports of casualties but it caused “significant damage,” and enormous waves lashed the Malecon, Havana’s emblematic seafront, causing seawaters to penetrate deep into the capital, AFP reported.
Irma was smacking the Keys 57 years to the day that Hurricane Donna hit the same area in 1960, destroying nearly 75 percent of the island chain’s buildings.
Hurricane-force winds are expected to lash Florida as Irma rolls north toward Georgia.
MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the military installation home to US Central Command, issued mandatory evacuation orders ahead of the storm’s passage early Monday, while the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast was also closed.
Reprieve from Jose
Warning that Irma would be more powerful than Hurricane Andrew – which killed 65 people in 1992 – Florida’s governor had said all 20.6 million of the state’s inhabitants should prepare to flee.
But some were determined to ride out the storm.
In a welcome reprieve for the Caribbean, a second monster storm, Hurricane Jose – which had been heading toward the same string of islands pummeled by Irma – began to gradually weaken and shift course towards the north.
The deteriorating weather had grounded aircraft and prevented boats from getting relief to hard-hit islands. The US military was mobilizing thousands of troops and deploying several large ships to aid with evacuations and humanitarian relief.