By Agence France Presse
Hurricane Irma regained strength Sunday as it began pummeling Florida, lashing its southern island chain with hurricane-force wind gusts and threatening landfall within hours.
Irma, packing winds of 130 miles (210 kilometers) per hour, was upgraded to a Category 4 storm as it closed in on the Florida Keys, the US National Hurricane Center said, as more than six million Floridians — a third of the state’s population — had been ordered to evacuate their homes ahead of the monster storm.
Hurricane-force gusts began whirling into the Keys as the storm churned about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south-southeast of Key West as of 5:00 am local time (0900 GMT).
“It looks as if the destructive eyewall of Hurricane #Irma will overspread the Lower #FLKeys between 7-8 am” local time, the National Weather Service (NWS) tweeted.
“Everyone in the Florida keys… It is time to hunker down,” the NWS warned.
“The worst winds are yet to come.”
For those people still at home, it was too late to escape the wrath of what could be the worst hurricane in storm-prone Florida, where nearly 300,000 power outages had already been reported.
In Key West, police had opened a “shelter of last resort” for those who had ignored mandatory evacuation orders.
The cities of Naples, Fort Myers and the densely populated peninsulas of Tampa Bay were in the crosshairs of the massive storm, which threatened storm surges of up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) — enough to cover a house.
“Life threatening storm surge is occurring now in the Keys and is expected to begin this morning in southwest Florida,” warned Florida Governor Rick Scott in an early Sunday tweet.