Irma on Sunday gained strength as it made landfall in the Florida Keys, with hurricane-force winds reported in major population centers, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
“A very dangerous day is unfolding in the Florida Keys and much of West Florida,” senior hurricane specialist Michael Brennan said. “It certainly could inundate the entire island. That’s why everyone in the Keys was urged so strongly to evacuate.”
That message was emphasized Saturday by President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott, who warned those in the Irma’s path to comply with evacuation orders before it was too late to hit the roads, and residents were told to go to shelters.
More than 6 million residents were encouraged to leave in an historic evacuation effort. Officials cannot force residents to leave but have said first responders would not attempt any rescue attempts in dangerous conditions, leaving to fend for themselves those who chose to decided not to evaucate.
The Category 5 storm killed at least 24 victims as it cut a destructive path across the Caribbean islands it left in ruins before being downgraded to Category 3. It regained some of its strength early Sunday, however, before its eyewall made contact with the Keys.
It now packs maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kilometers per hour), threatening deadly storm surge, or flooding, of up to 10 feet (3 meters) in some areas.
The storm has left hundreds of thousands without power in Florida, with tens of thousands bracing for in shelters.
Irma is shaping up to be the most devastating storm in Florida since Hurricane Andrew ravaged the state 25 years ago killing 65 people and causing $26 billion in damage.
By Canberk Yuksel in New York