Three dead as Hurricane Irma tears its way through Florida

Hurricane Irma roared through the Florida Keys yesterday with punishing 130mph winds and began pushing its way north, knocking out power to more than 1.69 million people across the state and leaving at least three people dead in the state, including a sheriff's deputy.
Cubans wade through a flooded street in Havana. Picture: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty ImagesCubans wade through a flooded street in Havana. Picture: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images
Cubans wade through a flooded street in Havana. Picture: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

The nearly 400-mile-wide storm was expected to make a slow, ruinous march up Florida’s west coast, straight toward the heavily populated Tampa-St Petersburg area by this morning.

Streets emptied across the bottom half of the Florida peninsula, and some 127,000 people huddled in shelters.

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“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Governor Rick Scott told American media.

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 six million people, was in extreme peril from the monstrously wide storm.

Nearly seven million people in the south-east were warned to get out of harm’s way, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.

About 30,000 people heeded orders to evacuate the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused to leave, 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 Miami, one of two dozen construction cranes looming over the skyline collapsed atop a high-rise in Irma’s 100mph winds. There was no immediate word on any damage or injuries. City officials said it would have taken about two weeks to have moved the cranes out of harm’s way.

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Irma made landfall just after 9am at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles outside Key West, forecasters said.

By late morning, it was advancing toward Florida’s south-western corner, moving at 9mph.

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 Facebook post.

“Once this system passes through, it’s going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives,” Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said on Fox News Sunday.

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.

Even before the extent of its potential devastation was clear, the storm made a huge swath of the peninsula’s bottom half unrecognisable. Normally bustling streets were ghost towns.

Famed party stretches including Duval Street in Key West and Ocean Drive on South Beach were shuttered. Sunday church services were called off, and theme parks were closed.

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Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 185mph last week.

It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean, and as Irma moved north over the Gulf of Mexico’s bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, it started to regain strength.

The Tampa-St Petersburg area, with a population of about three 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 as she snapped photographs 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 moving 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.

Hurricane Irma has left at least 27 people dead in the Caribbean.