Hurricane Irma gained strength early Sunday as it bore down on the Florida Keys, with officials upgrading it to a Category 4 storm and reporting maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour.
The hurricane’s eye was expected to cross the Lower Florida Keys during the next several hours, the National Hurricane Center said at 2 a.m.
Irma had been downgraded to a Category 3 storm as it churned toward Florida on Saturday, after leaving a trail of death and destruction across the Caribbean. Florida officials directed 6.5 million residents to leave their homes in one of the largest emergency evacuations in American history.
On Saturday evening, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida warned that the state could get as much as 18 inches of rain, with the Keys getting up to 25 inches. Southwest Florida could see a storm surge of 15 feet above ground level, and entire neighborhoods stretching northward from Naples to Tampa Bay could be submerged.
“If you have been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now,” Mr. Scott said at a 6 p.m. news conference. “This is your last chance to make a good decision.”
After crossing the Keys on Sunday, the storm was expected to move up the west coast of Florida before reaching Georgia on Monday afternoon. That westward track, which was a change from earlier expectations, left some residents and officials scrambling to find shelter. Late Saturday, forecasters said the storm’s projected path had again shifted “ever so slightly” west.
Irma made landfall in Cuba on Friday evening as a Category 5 hurricane, lashing the island’s northern coast with a direct hit, before losing some of its force later. It was the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in Cuba since 1924.
Here’s the latest:
• More than 200,000 people in Florida were without power early Sunday morning. Keys Energy Services, which supplies electricity to Key West and the Lower Florida Keys, said that all of its 29,000 customers were without power.
• At least 25 people were confirmed dead in areas in the Caribbean affected by the storm.
• In addition to an evacuation order in Miami, one of the country’s largest evacuations, 540,000 people were told to leave the Georgia coast. Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina have declared states of emergency.
• Mr. Scott said on Saturday that more than 385 shelters were open in Florida and that more were expected to open at night. More than 76,000 people were without electricity, he said.
• Hurricane Jose was passing farther north of the Leeward Islands than initially predicted, and St. Martin and St. Bart’s have downgraded hurricane warnings to tropical storm warnings. Check out our maps tracking the storm.
• Hurricane Katia, which made landfall on Mexico’s eastern coast, was downgraded to a tropical depression, with winds of 35 m.p.h. Two people died in a mudslide in the state of Veracruz after the storm hit, The Associated Press reported.
Residents and officials scramble for shelters
The storm’s sudden drive to the west prompted last-minute orders for evacuation in Collier and Lee Counties in Florida, leaving little time for residents to pack up and find shelter.
“We thought we were safe,” said a spokeswoman for Collier County who declined to give her name because she was not authorized to discuss the situation. “We thought we were safe like 36 hours ago.”
The spokeswoman said that a forecast at 5 p.m. on Thursday caused county officials to react, readying shelters and helping residents seeking to evacuate.
Starting on Saturday morning, lines that were several blocks long formed outside of shelters such as the Germain Arena, as residents jammed inside.
— Kat Middleton (@katmidds) September 9, 2017
In Fort Myers, which is in Lee County, buses that were transporting people to shelters stopped running at 3 p.m. to allow the drivers to seek safety, potentially leaving people who had not left their homes in time.
By late Saturday afternoon, all of the shelters in Collier County were at capacity, according to local news reports. Because of the imminent storm surge, officials told people living in one-story homes to try to enter shelters anyway, and people in two-story homes to seek shelter upstairs.
In Miami-Dade County, some people who had flocked to shelters were reassessing their situation on Saturday afternoon after learning that the brunt of the hurricane would most likely be felt farther west.
“We’re going home,” Virginia Lopez, an administrative assistant at Barry University, said as she loaded her 5-year-old poodle mix, Princess, into her Mazda outside a shelter at Highland Oaks Middle School after spending the night there with her daughter and son-in-law. “We decided half an hour ago. The storm has moved to Tampa, so we’re going to get a lot of rain but it won’t be as bad. I don’t feel so scared.”
Inside, dozens of people lay on cots and blankets in the building’s hallways amid a stench of perspiration and vomit. Some were packing to leave but most seemed resigned to remaining until the storm blows through.
Florida gets an early feel for what’s to come
As Hurricane Irma steered its way toward the Florida Keys on Saturday night, Florida began to feel its approach. The ocean began rising in Key West, spilling into hotel parking lots and roads. In the Keys to the north, water levels toppled over the banks of canals.
In Miami-Dade, tree branches tumbled and fast-moving bands of powerful rain and wind occasionally made it hard to walk. Orange County issued a mandatory evacuation for all mobile homes.
In Lake Worth in Palm Beach County, a tornado tore through one neighborhood, bringing the telltale freight train rumble and clatter of intense wind. On South Beach, palm trees tilted in the wind, their palm fronds fluttering fiercely.
But these ominous signs of Irma’s churn toward Florida were often short-lived. The storm was still far offshore and not expected to be within striking distance of the Florida Keys until the predawn hours.
Florida Keys face being cut off
In the Florida Keys, emergency officials girded for a direct hit and residents who did not evacuate began to take cover as the winds kicked up sharply Saturday afternoon.
The Keys, a thin chain of low-lying islands, are especially vulnerable to Hurricane Irma’s anticipated powerful tidal surges.
The ocean is expected to rise and hurtle into buildings and houses near the coast. Pine Island, north of Key West, was already seeing rising seas at noon.
Some canals were spilling their bounds and emergency responders were evacuating to the Upper Keys.
But the worst could come after the hurricane moves on. Keys residents could find themselves isolated from the mainland if any one of their 42 bridges gets damaged.
Residents and emergency officials would be cut off from food, gas and other supplies because there would be no easy way of reaching them by road.
“Just think about the Keys for a second,” Mr. Scott warned residents at a recent news conference. “If we lose one bridge, everything south of the bridge, everybody’s going to be stranded. It’s going to take us a while to get back in there to try to provide services.”
A hospital hunkers down
Hurricane Irma has already disrupted Florida’s health systems. As of Saturday night, 29 hospitals, 239 assisted-living centers and 56 other health care facilities in the state were evacuated, according to Jason Mahon, a public information officer at the Florida State Emergency Operations Center. More than 60 shelters had been opened for people with special needs.
Not all health organizations made the difficult choice to transfer their patients out of Irma’s path. Tampa General Hospital, the highest level trauma center in the region, remained open and full of patients and staff, despite being surrounded by water on the tip of Davis Islands.
The hospital is in Zone A, the area most vulnerable to storm surge.
A spokesman for the hospital, John Dunn, said by phone Saturday night that staff members had arrived on Friday to stay throughout the storm and work in shifts to care for the hospital’s approximately 700 patients.
Mr. Dunn said the hospital had submarine doors to protect against flooding, and generators had been elevated from the ground floor to a higher level. They are capable of powering air-conditioning for parts of the buildings, he said.
He added that the hospital’s leaders had spoken in the past with local emergency officials and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about how the hospital might evacuate. “There are not many resources available to be able to evacuate large numbers of patients,” he said.
Cuba gets a direct hit
Irma slammed into Cuba on Friday night as a Category 5 hurricane, causing widespread destruction. Meteorologists were expecting the storm to tack north earlier, and were not predicting a direct hit.
The eye of the storm passed directly through the archipelago of keys on the northern coast in the central part of the island.
The damage to its central provinces was substantial: Power lines were brought down in Camaguey, houses were destroyed in Ciego de Ávila and fishing towns have been submerged in Villa Clara.
An ‘apocalyptic doomsday scene’ on the British Virgin Islands
With communications limited on the British Virgin Islands, the full scope of the damage from Hurricane Irma was still revealing itself. On Saturday, at least five deaths were reported by the governor, Gus Jaspert. With communication on the island all but severed, officials were still working to assess the full scale of devastation.
Residents of Tortola, the largest island, said buildings were leveled and roads were washed away. People have limited food and water.
The British government said it sent 20 tons of aid to the affected areas, including shelter kits and solar lanterns aboard a naval ship.
Catherine Clayton, whose family owns a hotel on Tortola in Josiah’s Bay, said 25 people — including neighbors whose homes were decimated — were sheltered in the two remaining inhabitable rooms at the once eight-room Tamarind Hotel.
“It is like an apocalyptic doomsday scene here,” she said. “No trees, leaves or greenery.”