Hurricane Irma nears Florida with devastating winds

Hurricane Irma was set to make landfall in Florida on Sunday with devastating winds and life-threatening storm surges, prompting one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history, after a destructive march up Cuba’s northern coast.

The storm was a Category 4 hurricane about 70 miles (115 km) south-southeast of Key West, Florida, as of 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) on Sunday 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, it said.

Irma, which killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean, was considered a life-threatening danger to Florida as well, and could inflict a natural disaster causing billions of dollars in damage to the third-most-populous U.S. state.

It was expected to rip through Florida’s southwestern archipelago on Sunday morning as a Category 4 storm, the second-highest designation on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Irma should then move inland over the Florida panhandle and southwestern Georgia on Monday afternoon, the NHC said

Wind gusts near hurricane force began to batter the Florida Keys late on Saturday, the NHC said, with Key West seeing gusts of more than 80 mph. It has put out a hurricane watch and warning as well as a tropical storm warning for almost all of the state into Georgia and South Carolina – an area where about 20 million people live.

Storm surges pushed by a high tide were forecast to be as high as 15 feet (4.6 m) for low-lying area along the state’s west coast on Sunday, which could produce catastrophic flooding for thousands of homes.

The city of Miami imposed a curfew until 7 a.m. on Sunday and more than 260,000 customers in Florida were without power on Sunday morning, utilities reported.

“This is a life-threatening situation,” the center said.

Irma comes just days after Hurricane Harvey dumped record-setting rain in Texas, causing one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Tracking models showed Irma would make landfall on the Keys and head along Florida’s west coast, bringing 120 mph wind gusts to the state that is a major tourism hub, with an economy that comprises about 5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

More than 2,000 flights in and out of Florida were canceled on Saturday, according to tracking service FlightAware.com, and ground transport was scrambled by millions fleeing for safety.

Amid urgent warnings from state officials to evacuate before it was too late, downtown Miami was all but abandoned on Saturday.

Sheets of rain and wind gusts of more than 50 mph swept through the deserted city of 400,000 people several hours before expected landfall. Reuters

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