Hurricane Irma’s northern edge crashed into the Florida Keys on Sunday, bringing a double barrel threat of destructive winds and life-threatening storm surges that sparked one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history.
The storm, which hammered Cuba’s northern coast a day earlier, was a Category 4 hurricane about 15 miles (25 km) south-southeast of Key West, Florida, as of 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (210 kph), the National Hurricane Center said.
It was on a path that would take it along the state’s Gulf of Mexico coast near population centers including Tampa and St. Petersburg, the NHC said. Hundreds of thousands of people spent the night in emergency shelters.
Storm surges pushed by a high tide were forecast to be as high as 15 feet (4.6 meters) for low-lying area along the state’s southwest coast on Sunday, which could produce catastrophic flooding for thousands of homes.
“Take action now to protect your life,” the National Weather Service in Key West advised. “This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation.”
Officials in Florida have ordered a total of 6.3 million people, or about a third of the state’s population, to evacuate, creating massive traffic jams on highways and overcrowding shelters.