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Hurricane Irma begins to reach Florida as millions of residents evacuate ahead of monster storm

Sunday September 10, 2017 - 10:56 EST

Hurricane Irma has pounded Cuba's northern coast and is making its way to the US state of Florida on a projected new track that could put Tampa — not Miami — in the crosshairs.

More than 50,000 people in Florida are seeking shelter in schools, community centres and churches, as authorities scramble to complete the unprecedented evacuation of millions of residents.

The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said in its latest update that a hurricane hunter airplane found Irma's winds dropped from 201kph to 193kph, but that was likely to soon increase again.

Irma has been downgraded to a Category 3 storm, but NHC spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said it was already showing signs at high altitudes of regaining its previous powerhouse strength and becoming better organised.

Meteorologists said heavy rain squalls spawning tornadoes were hitting south Florida as part of Hurricane Irma's leading edge.

Tornado warnings have been issued for Fort Lauderdale, Coral Springs, Pompano Beach and Sunrise in Broward County, as well as parts of nearby Palm Beach and Hendry Counties.

Irma's core is still expected to come ashore on Sunday (local time) and strike the Keys, south-western Florida and the Tampa Bay region, which has not felt a major hurricane for nearly a century.

The forecasts even have Irma maintaining hurricane strength well into Georgia on Monday (local time).

While the eye is now expected to miss heavily populated Miami, the area will still get life-threatening hurricane conditions even without a direct hit, Hurricane Centre spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

The westward swing in the overnight forecast caught many people off guard along Florida's Gulf coast and triggered an abrupt shift in the storm preparations.

A major round of evacuations was ordered in the Tampa area, and shelters there soon began filling up.

The Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Highway Patrol also started to allow people to drive on the shoulders of Interstate 4, the main highway that links Tampa to Orlando, after the updated forecasts.

The adjusted potential track of the storm toward the west coast of Florida and away from the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, meant "a less costly, a less deadly storm", University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said.

Nevertheless, forecasters warned that its hurricane-force winds were so wide they could reach from coast to coast, testing the nation's third-largest state, which has undergone rapid development and more stringent hurricane-proof building codes in the last decade or so.

Hurricane reduced homes to rubble in Cuba

The window was closing fast for anyone wanting to escape before the arrival of the fearsome storm, which at one time was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.

"You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now," Governor Rick Scott warned residents in Florida's evacuation zones, which encompassed a staggering 6.4 million people, or more than 1 in 4 people in the state.

Governor Scott warned 25,000 people had already lost power, and said there was a threat of significant storm surge flooding.

"This is your last chance to make a good decision," he said.

Irma struck Cuba with 260 kilometre per hour winds early on Saturday (local time), the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said, after upgrading the storm to its most powerful classification of category five.

The scenes along Cuba's north central coast were gradually coming to resemble the horrors of those of other Caribbean islands over the last week.

In the northern Villa Clara province, residents emerged to find their streets flooded and homes reduced to rubble.

It then weakened slightly to category four with maximum sustained winds of 215 kilometres per hour, and was then also downgraded to a category three, but it is expected to pick up strength again as it closes in on Florida.

, about 5.6 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state's population — were ordered to leave, and another 540,000 were ordered out on the Georgia coast.

Irma changes path, putting Tampa in its sights

For days, the forecast had made it look as if the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people on Florida's Atlantic coast could get hit head-on.

But that soon changed. Meteorologists predicted Irma's centre would blow ashore Sunday morning in the perilously low-lying Florida Keys, then hit southwestern Florida and move north during the day, ploughing into the Tampa Bay area by Monday morning (local time).

Tampa has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Centre spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

Now the area has around 3 million people.

The new course threatened everything from Tampa Bay's bustling twin cities of Tampa and St Petersburg to Naples' canals and Sanibel Island's shell-filled beaches.

Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.

"This is a storm that will kill you if you don't get out of the way," National Hurricane Centre meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen warned on Saturday.

Ray Scarborough and girlfriend Leah Etmanczyk left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north with her parents and three big dogs to stay with relatives in Orlando.

Mr Scarborough was 12 when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and remembers lying on the floor in a hallway as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house.

"They said this one is going to be bigger than Andrew. When they told me that, that's all I needed to hear," Mr Scarborough, now a 37-year-old boat captain, said.

"That one tore everything apart."

Their house in the Keys, on 1.8 metre stilts, has flooded before.

"This isn't our first rodeo. Andrew was a wicked storm. Wilma was a wicked storm. This one is going to be worse," he said.

"Then we'll go home and rebuild, like we always do," said Ms Etmanczyk, a 29-year-old teacher.



© ABC 2017

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