Hurricane Irma makes landfall on Florida Keys
PLANTATION, Florida — Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida on Sunday and was headed for the southwest coast after raking the Lower Keys with ferocious 130 mph winds and soaking the southern part of the state with torrential rains.
The center of Irma's eye passed over Cudjoe Key at 9:10 a.m. and the storm is now heading for the cities of Naples and Fort Myers, the National Hurricane Center reported.
Up and down the state's Gulf Coast, residents braced for life-threatening storm surges of up to 15 feet in some places and 6 p.m. curfews were declared by officials in the vulnerable cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, which have not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921.
"There is a serious threat of significant storm surge flooding along the entire west coast of Florida," Gov. Rick Scott warned at a noon news conference. "And this has increased to 15 feet of impact above ground level in southwest Florida."
Tornado warnings were in place in counties across the state Sunday as thousands of Floridians were hunkered down in homes and shelters and the howling gales rattled shuttered windows and tore trees up by their roots..
One twister touched down near Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, the National Weather Service said. The fire department there said there was no damage or injuries.
As of noon, nearly 1.5 million customers were without power in Florida and that number was expected to keep growing as Irma batters the state, according to utility companies including Florida Power & Light.
The Latest on the Storm
- Irma restrengthened to a Category 4 storm early Sunday as it hit the lower Florida Keys with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph just after 7 a.m. ET. It made landfall on Cudjoe Key at 9:10 a.m.
- It could reach Fort Myers by Sunday night, passing the Tampa Bay area before moving to northern Florida on Monday morning.
- The Florida Keys and the southwest Florida coast are in the most danger of storm surges of around 10 feet.
- The Keys could get 10 to 20 inches of rain, and the Florida peninsula could get 8 to 15 inches. Tornadoes are possible.
In Miami Beach, many streets were also submerged and there were reports of a construction crane collapse downtown.
"There are areas of south Florida and the Keys that have already had 12 inches of rain," Scott said.
In Orlando, Mayor Teresa Jacobs announced a county-wide curfew starting at 7 p.m. and said people who live in mobile homes should leave and "seek shelter immediately."
"We're continuing our door-to-door outreach, using loudspeakers through mobile home parks to make sure we reaching everyone that we can," she said.
South of Tampa, Hardee County Sheriff Arnold Lanier confirmed that one of his deputies was killed in a car crash Sunday morning; a corrections officer was also killed. The deputy, Julie Bridges, 42, who had been on the force for 13 years, had spent the night working at a shelter and was heading home when the crash occurred.
"She was a very fine deputy, and we are grateful for her service," Lanier told NBC News. "It is a tremendous loss."
State Attorney General Pat Bondi later said that Bridges' car collided with the corrections officer's vehicle. While weather conditions were likely a factor, the deaths were not immediately described as being due to Irma.
The stress from the hurricane appeared to be getting to some Floridians. After a "Shoot at Irma" event posting went up on Facebook, the sheriff in Pasco County tweeted, "DO NOT shoot weapons @ #irma."
Nearly 6.3 million people were ordered to evacuate before the storm. Not everyone heeded the calls.
Brian Cone, a boat captain in Tavernier in the Florida Keys, said he was staying in his cement-built home, which which he compared to "a bunker."
"Truthfully, the whole state of Florida is in trouble. I mean, there's really nowhere safe," Cone told MSNBC in a phone interview. He said he and his neighbors have generators, batteries, food, water and other supplies. "We feel it was more dangerous to travel all over the state, run out of fuel possibly," he said. "We're gonna ride it out."
Key West Police Chief Donald Lee told MSNBC by phone Saturday that those who stayed in defiance of evacuation orders do so at their own risk. He said the area had already seen tornado warnings, downed trees and flooding by Saturday evening.
"They're putting their lives in danger," Lee said.
In Miami-Dade County in the southeastern part of the state, police encouraged residents to stay indoors as the storm was hitting early Sunday.
"There’s a lot of trees that are being knocked over, we have live wires — it’s extremely volatile out there,” Miami-Dade Police Department Major Hector Llevat said. "Right now, we’re just urging everybody to stay indoors, to seek shelter."
Scott said Sunday his chief worry was the storm surges, which may reach as high as 15 feet in southwest Florida. "It's hard to believe anybody will survive that," he told NBC News' TODAY show.
Scott said he would not spare any resources to protect people from the storm. “We’re going to take care of everybody,” he said.
The hurricane center warned of a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet between Cape Sable and Captiva if they peak at high tide, and 5 to 10 feet in the Keys. Tampa Bay could see surges of 5 to 8 feet.
Scott said Saturday that Florida has been "aggressive" in its preparation for Irma, adding that there were more than 385 shelters open across the path of the storm.
States north of Florida prepared for Irma's arrival, with Georgia telling 540,000 residents to leave the coast and South Carolina ordering nearly 45,000 people to evacuate.
Hurricane Irma has already claimed at least 23 lives after smashing through a string of Caribbean islands this week, including Barbuda, St. Martin, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where 1 million people were left without electricity.
Kalhan Rosenblatt reported from Plantation, Florida, Saphora Smith reported from London, and Corky Siemaszko from New York City.