76,000 people are already without power in Florida, as the outer bands of Hurricane Irma begin to affect the US mainland, the state’s governor said late Saturday.
Calling the situation an “obvious state of emergency,” Rick Scott said that Florida has been very aggressive in its preparation for the storm, but he said locals will have to deal with its impact, including downed power lines and trees and blocked roads due to flooding.
“We want everybody to survive this hurricane,” Scott said.
In a press conference late Saturday, Scott said an expected storm surge could reach 4.5 metres in the south-western coastal city of Naples.
He added that Irma could spawn tornadoes and dump as much as 38 centimetres of rain on the peninsula and 63 centimetres on the Florida Keys.
Hurricane Irma began shifting northward Saturday, putting the low-lying Florida Keys directly in its path as tens of thousands of Floridians crowded into shelters and hundreds of thousands more were added to mandatory evacuation orders.
The weather began deteriorating in the Florida Keys late Saturday and in other parts of southern Florida, the National Hurricane Center said. Major hurricane force winds were expected over the Keys by sunrise on Sunday, the centre said.
A mandatory evacuation, ordered for the archipelago days ago, meant most people have already left. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said anyone who stayed on the Keys will have to wait for help if they need it.
“There is no safe area within the Keys, and you put your life in your own hands by not evacuating,” Brock Long told CNN.
In total, 6.3 million people have been ordered to evacuate the state, including 700,000 added by Scott in mandatory evacuation orders on Saturday.
Traffic was heavy on roads leading out of Florida and emergency shelters started filling up after officials warned of “major life-threatening impacts from coast to coast” across the peninsula, which is home to 20 million people.
The state’s emergency management agency said nearly 70,000 people were hunkering down in more than 420 shelters opened in the state.
The National Hurricane Center said at 8pm (0000 GMT) that Irma remained a category-3 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 195 kilometres per hour (kph), but added that it is forecast to regain strength after moving away from Cuba.
The hurricane centre predicts Irma will “move along or near the south-west coast” of Florida on Sunday. People who didn’t evacuate were told to brace for the storm by pulling in lawn furniture, wind chimes and anything else unsecured on their property.
US President Donald Trump said his administration is monitoring the situation around the clock and is “as prepared as we can be.” Speaking from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, he urged people to heed evacuation orders.
“All of America continues, I must say, to pray for families affected by Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, which looks like it’s going to be a really bad one,” he said.
Trump said all of America grieves for the lives already lost.
Irma’s eye was about 175 kilometres south-east of the Florida Keys on Saturday evening moving at about 11 kph, the hurricane centre said.
On the eastern side of the state, officials imposed a night-time curfew in Miami Beach which also is expected to feel the wrath of the massive storm whose hurricane-force winds extend more than 100 kilometres from its centre.
Irma, one of the strongest storms ever to impact the region, caused major destruction earlier this week when it struck the US and British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy, and St Kitts and Nevis after developing into a Category 5 storm.
At least five people have died in British overseas territories, according to media reports on Saturday, including one on the island of Anguilla and another four on the British Virgin Islands.
Media reports previously said up to 24 could be dead as a result of the storm, with French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb saying the storm left at least nine dead on the French side of Saint Martin and St Barthelemy.
Weather forecasters also have another Atlantic hurricane in their sights: Category 4 Jose was expected to pass about 100 kilometres north of France’s Caribbean territories of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy later on Saturday.
The French meteorological service placed the territories on violet alert, one level above red alert.