Hurricane Irma powers up as it nears Florida Keys -- back to Category 4

Jake Baker  ·  September 10, 2017  ·  Featured, U.S. News, Weather

Hurricane Irma gathered new strength early Sunday as it approached the Florida Keys - regaining Category 4 status.

A 2 a.m. ET Sunday advisory from the National Hurricane Center said the storm was about 70 miles southeast of Key West, with sustained winds of 130 miles per hour, and headed for the Florida peninsula at 6 mph.

The latest forecasts predicted it would head up the western part of the state, poised to make a direct hit on St. Petersburg - which hasn't absorbed such a blow in nearly a century.

But hours before Irma was due in Florida, more than 170,000 homes and businesses in Florida had already lost electrical power.

Florida Power and Light said on its website that more than half of the power outages were in the Miami-Dade area, from which about 600,000 people had been ordered to evacuate.

All told, the company has said it expects millions of people to lose power, with some areas experiencing prolonged outages.

The company said it has assembled the largest pre-storm workforce in U.S. history, with more than 16,000 people ready to respond.

Meanwhile, most of Florida's major airports - including those in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando - were closed.

The first hurricane-force winds arrived in the Florida Keys shortly before 11 p.m. ET Saturday, bending palm trees and spitting rain as the storm swirled north.

On Saturday night an estimated 70,000 Floridians huddled in shelters as Irma closed in on the Keys, where the storm's center was expected to swirl over land Sunday morning.

"This is your last chance to make a good decision," Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the state's evacuation zones, which encompassed a staggering 6.4 million people, or more than 1 in 4 people in the state.

Despite the storm's westward shift, Miami was not out of danger. Because the storm's damaging winds stretch 350 to 400 miles wide, forecasters said the metro area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening gusts and a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet.

Threat to Tampa Bay area

The new course poses a greater threat to the twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as Naples' mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center's retirement homes, and Sanibel Island's shell-filled beaches.

The course change from Florida's east coast caught many off guard and triggered a major round of evacuations. Many west coast businesses had yet to put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals grumbled about the forecast.

"For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we're now told it's coming up the west coast," said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. "As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid."

Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and leery residents watched a projected track that could still shift to spare, or savage, parts of the state.

Forecasters warned of storm surge as high as 15 feet.

"This is going to sneak up on people," said Jamie Rhome, head of the hurricane center's storm surge unit.

With the new forecast, Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, ordered 260,000 people to leave, while Georgia scaled back evacuation orders for some residents of the state's Atlantic shore. Motorists heading inland from the Tampa area were allowed to drive on the shoulder.

Guardsmen activated

The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.

In the Orlando area, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World all prepared to close Saturday. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay was closed.

Irma could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen there 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.

Boat captain Ray Scarborough was 12 when Andrew hit and remembers lying on the floor in a hall as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house. This time, he and his girlfriend left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north for Orlando.

"They said this one is going to be bigger than Andrew. When they told me that," he said, "that's all I needed to hear."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Florida, Storm Clouds, Devestation, Hurricane Irma, Category 4, Live Video

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