Oliver Holmes — Guardian.co.uk Sept 10, 2017
Florida faces the “most catastrophic” storm in its history as Hurricane Irma prepares to unleash devastating force on the state, including 120mph winds, life-threatening sea surges that could submerge buildings and an advance battery of tornadoes.
“You need to leave – not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” Governor Rick Scott commanded in a press conference, 12 hours before the cyclone was expected to make landfall on Sunday morning. “This is the most catastrophic storm the state has ever seen.”
The US national hurricane centre said in its 8pm Saturday update on Irma that “heavy squalls with embedded tornadoes” were already sweeping across south Florida. The US National Weather Service later said the first hurricane-force wind gust had been recorded in the Florida Keys, a low-lying island chain off the state’s southern coast.
Irma dropped to a category three hurricane but could regain its category four intensity as the bathtub-warm seawater of nearly 32C (90F) will enable the storm to build strength.
It was forecast to hit the Keys first, then again near Cape Coral or Fort Myers, and then a third time near Tampa Bay on its path up Florida’s west coast. Weather stations in Marathon, a city in the Keys, reported sustained winds of 51mph (81kmh) with a gust to 71mph (115kmh) on Saturday night.
In Florida’s south-west, officials expected sea surges as high as 15ft (4.5 metres), which can rapidly rise and fall.
“Fifteen feet is devastating and will cover your house,” Scott said. “Do not think the storm is over when the wind slows down. The storm surge will rush in and it could kill you.”
He said at least 76,000 people were without power as the 350 miles (560km) wide storm unleashes winds and rain on the state. Officials said the window for people in evacuation zones was shutting, with gas stations closing and bridges blocked off.
More than seven million people were ordered to flee their homes in several states, including nearly a third of Florida’s population. Around 50,000 people were in 300 shelters around the state, counties enacted curfews and power providers have already begun to struggle with demand.
In Miami, Guardian reporter Richard Luscombe was sheltering with his family in a 5ft x 5ft interior closet with no windows, away from exterior walls and doors.
“My mobile phone has been screaming its high-pitched alarm every 10 minutes over the last hour or so with dire warnings from the National Weather Service to take cover NOW because of tornadic thunderstorms in the area,” he said.
“The threat of tornados comes from thunderstorms in Hurricane Irma’s violent outer bands, which have been circling over Miami-Dade and Broward counties for most of the day as the storm moves ever closer.