Tampa Bay braces for the full impact of Irma, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, as it heads towards southwestern Florida, bringing the risk of severe floods.
With the window closing fast for anyone wanting to escape, Irma hurtled toward Florida with 201 km per hour winds Saturday on a shifting course that threatened the first direct hit on the Tampa area from a major hurricane in nearly a century.
That represented a significant turn in the forecast, which for days had made it look instead as if the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people was going to get slammed head-on by the Big One.
"You don't want to play with this thing," Sen. Marco Rubio warned during a visit to the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center. "People will die from this."
Forecasters predicted Irma's centre would blow ashore Sunday in the perilously low-lying Florida Keys, then hit southwestern Florida, move up the state's Gulf Coast and plow into the Tampa Bay area.
The storm centre itself is expected to miss Miami, but the metro area will still get pounded with life-threatening hurricane winds, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
TRT World's Ediz Tiansan reports from Miami where the storm has led to a mass exodus.
A second Category Four hurricane, Jose, is following part of Irma’s track, affecting many Caribbean islands that have already suffered catastrophic damage.
But it was moving away from the northern Leeward Islands on Saturday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, giving some relief to the Caribbean archipelago.
By 2 pm eastern time, Jose, a Category 4 storm, was 155 km north-east of the northern Leeward Islands and moving away from them.
All hurricane warnings had been downgraded to lesser alerts, the NHC said.
Irma, a major hurricane
Tampa has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, Feltgen said. Now the area has around 3 million people and encompasses two of Florida's biggest cities: Tampa and St. Petersburg.
As the storm closed in on the Sunshine State, it pounded Cuba and left at least 22 people dead in its wake across the Caribbean after ravaging such resort islands as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Antigua.
Irma weakened slightly in the morning but was expected to pick up strength again before slamming Florida.
TRT World spoke to Giles Gibson who had updates from Fort Lauderdale.
On Saturday morning, the hurricane's outer bands blew into South Florida as residents scrambled to leave. Damaging winds were moving into areas including Key Biscayne and Coral Gables, and gusts up to 90 kph were reported off Miami.
Irma, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, was expected to rip through the Florida Keys archipelago on Sunday morning. It will make landfall on the Florida peninsula somewhere west of Miami on a track that would take it up the state’s west coast, including Tampa, forecasters said.
Irma, which has killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean, was likely to inflict billions of dollars in damage in one of the most populous and fastest-growing states.
It could bring a storm surge up to 15 feet (4.6 metres) high along the state’s west coast, which is expected to trigger flooding.
The hurricane could rival any storm in Florida’s history, with the storm surge generating flooding along the entire west coast, Governor Rick Scott said.
“Think about that, 15 feet is devastating and will cover your house,” he said at a Saturday morning news conference.
Irma, located 314 km south of Miami on Saturday afternoon, still ranked as a Category 5 storm when it crashed into Cuba during the morning.
It gradually weakened to a Category 3 storm as it bumped along the island’s northern coastline, downing power lines, bending palm trees and sending waves crashing over sea walls.
6.3 million evacuated
In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the US, about 6.3 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state's population — were warned to leave, and 540,000 were directed to clear out from the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.
"If you are planning to leave and do not leave tonight, you will have to ride out this extremely dangerous storm at your own risk," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Friday. He urged everybody in the Keys to get out.
Major tourist attractions, including the Disney World parks, Universal Studios and Sea World, all prepared to close Saturday. The Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports shut down, and those in Orlando and Tampa planned to do the same later in the day.
With winds that peaked at 300 kph, Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.
But given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, it could still prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and could inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
It could also test the Federal Emergency Management Agency's ability to handle two crises at the same time. FEMA is still dealing with aftermath of catastrophic Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area.
Gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will.
Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars drove in the southbound lanes.
In suburban Palm Beach County on the state's Atlantic coast, the streets were nearly deserted early Saturday as the first squall from Irma dropped a brief shower over the area.
Gas stations ran out of fuel, grocery stores were closed and only a few fast-food restaurants were open.