The eye of Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida Keys as the calamitous storm snapped palm trees and threatened to devastate much of the state.
The mammoth cyclone is hurling 130 winds — but even more dangerous may be the storm surges.
Southwestern coastal cities from Cape Sable and Captiva could see walls of water up to 15 feet, the National Hurricane Center said.
“This is a life-threatening situation,” the National Hurricane Center said. “Near the coast, the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves.”
Still, not everyone heeded orders to evacuate.
“It’s going from crappy to worse,” said John Hines, who did not evacuate and stayed in his home in Key West.
“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.”
Almost the entire state of Florida is under a hurricane warning affecting at least 36 million people, with concerns of catastrophic gales, torrential rain rain and deadly storm surges.
Those who did not evacuate ahead of the storm are in danger, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Saturday.
“You’re on your own until we can actually get in there and it’s safe,” he told CNN.
“The message has been clear: The Keys are going to be impacted. There is no safe area within the Keys. And you put your life in your own hands by not evacuating.”
The latest developments:
— More than 560,000 electric customers in 19 counties are without power, Florida Power and Light said Sunday.
— A storm surge warning wraps around the state, from Brevard County to Tampa Bay.
— More than 72,000 people have moved into more than 390 shelters across the state, the governor’s office said.
— At least 24 deaths have been blamed on Irma in the Caribbean islands, where it hit before marching toward Florida.
‘You can’t survive these storm surges’
Gov. Rick Scott warned some storm surges could be deadly.
“You can’t survive these storm surges,” he 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.”
Irma hit Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province late Friday as a Category 5 hurricane before it weakened.
Other cities will feel storm’s punch
Several Florida cities are in or near the forecast path of the storm’s eye.
The storm will be devastating for central Florida, Tampa, Fort Myers, Naples and Key West, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said storm surge is the main fear.
“We’re going to get through the winds, we’ll get through the rain, depending on what the level of surge is,” he said. “But more importantly, the surge will occur tomorrow at the same time we have a high tide — so that compounds the problem.”
In Fort Myers, where storm surge warnings are in effect, Evanson Ngai stayed up all night, tracking the hurricane.
“I’ve tried to get some sleep but I can’t. Just the nervousness, trying to keep an eye on it to see if its track will change,” he said.
Ngai plans to crouch in the bathtub when it makes landfall.
“Right now, it’s a little bit of gusty winds and some rain,” he said early Sunday. “We’ve moved everything away from windows. We’re hoping for the best — we’ve bought nonperishable foods and water, and we have a flashlight.”
Florida Power and Light estimated 3.4 million of its customers could be without power at some point during Irma, the company’s largest number of outages ever.
“We think this could be the most challenging restoration in the history of the US,” company spokesman Chris McGrath said.
Other states may be affected
Officials in other states are also keeping an eye on Irma. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation for some barrier islands, while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded a state of emergency to include 94 counties.
The National Weather Service in Atlanta issued a tropical storm watch for the area Monday and Tuesday. Schools in the state planned to close Monday.
Alabama and North Carolina may also be affected, FEMA said.
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