MIAMI — The fierce eye of Hurricane Irma roared ashore in Florida on Sunday, bringing the full intensity of the storm to bear on the lower Florida Keys before beginning what forecasters say could be a painful journey up the state’s western coastline.
After days of alarming warnings forced millions from their homes and effectively shut down daily life across a wide swath of the southeastern United States, Irma breached the Florida coast on Sunday morning, making landfall just after 9 a.m. at Cudjoe Key.
Irma had already made its presence known across South Florida, causing more than a million power outages and lashing major population centers with driving rain and roof-rattling wind. The danger is only just beginning, forecasters warn, because the storm will grind along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sunday and could make a second landfall later in the day.
“Today is going to the be the long day,” said Mark DeMaria, deputy acting director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The hurricane center warns that Irma, which has restrengthened into a Category 4 storm, has created an “imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding along much of the Florida west coast.” While Irma’s path is now likely to hew to Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm’s sheer size and reach — hurricane-force winds extend about 80 miles from the center, and tropical storm winds extend out 220 miles — means that those who remain here in southeast Florida are still imperiled by its winds and dangerous storm surge.
Irma is forecast to remain a major hurricane as it approaches the densely populated Tampa Bay area, which experts say is woefully ill-equipped to confront a storm of this size. Many people from Florida’s eastern coast had sought refuge around Tampa in recent days before the storm’s path shifted westward.
“It could make landfall anywhere along the west coast,” Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said in an early morning update Sunday. “It’s really hard to predict where the eye will make landfall on the west coast once it leaves the Keys.”
Irma spent much of Sunday morning over the Florida Keys, the string of islands off the state’s southern coast. The Keys could see up to 25 inches of rainfall and storm surges could wash over the low-lying chain, a popular tourist destination that includes Key West.
“A very dangerous day is unfolding in the Florida Keys and much of West Florida,” Brennan said. “It certainly could inundate the entire island. That’s why everyone in the Keys was urged so strongly to evacuate.”
By midday Sunday, Irma was leaving the Keys and heading toward the southwest coast of Florida, the National Weather Service reported.
“It’s going to skirt the west coast and drive storm surge not only from the Keys but well up the coast of Florida,” William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “So, it’s a worst case scenario for Florida on the west coast.”
Craig Fugate, the former FEMA administrator, spoke to the same program from Gainesville, Fla., which is just north of the state’s center, and warned of the danger posed by the storm surge.
“Water is historically the big killer in these hurricanes,” Fugate said. “Death by drowning is what we talk about with storm surge.”
Authorities say that more than 6.3 million Floridians — about three in 10 residents statewide — have been ordered to evacuate as Irma’s outer bands began to batter the state.
Gov. Rick Scott (R), who has been blunt about the storm’s potential, had residents in evacuation zones to leave their homes immediately, noting at a certain point, nobody would be able to come rescue them. Two Florida law enforcement officers were reportedly killed early Sunday in a head-on collision.
“This is a life-threatening situation,” Scott said at a news briefing Sunday in Tallahassee, the state’s capital. “The storm is here now.”
Irma had knocked out power to nearly 2 million customers by Sunday morning, said Rob Gould, a spokesman for Florida Power and Light. After about 1.7 million lost power, it was restored to about 320,000 of those customers before noon, he said. Gould also said there were people impersonating utility employees and then robbing people in their homes at gunpoint, warning customers not to let anyone inside without proper identification.
Gould’s briefing was interrupted at one point by a brief power outage. “We are not immune to Irma’s wrath,” he said.
While Irma had been downgraded to a Category 3 storm Saturday, it was upgraded again to Category 4 early Sunday. At 5 a.m., weather officials said the storm was plodding northwest at about 8 miles per hour, placing it on pace to reach Naples by about 5 p.m.
Regardless of its ultimate track, all of Florida — which is about 360 miles wide across the panhandle, but less than half as wide across much of the middle of the state — most likely will experience damaging winds, rains, flooding and possibly tornadoes. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for all of southern Florida and the Florida Keys.
The National Weather Service said southwestern Florida could see storm surges up to 15 feet if peak surge happens during high tide. A storm surge warning is in effect for much of the Florida peninsula. “This is a deadly storm, and our state has never seen anything like it,” Scott said.
Officials across the state imposed curfews, ordering people in Broward County along the southeast coast and Orange County, home to Orlando in Central Florida, to remain home until further notice.
Still, despite tornado warnings and curfews, some decided to venture back into the storm. At Pompano Beach High School, which has been transformed into a shelter, several people decided to leave Saturday night once it looked like the storm’s core was shifting away from the eastern part of the state.
“We’ve got hurricane windows at home and the forecast looks like it’s not going to be as bad as they predicted,” said Laurie Trinkle, who arrived with relatives shortly after noon on Saturday and decided to leave about 12 hours later. “I think we’ll be more comfortable at home as long as the power stays on.”
Concerns stretched up the coast, into nearby states where some evacuees sought shelter. About 540,000 people in Georgia and 44,000 in South Carolina also were ordered to evacuate by Sunday evening. Airports throughout Florida and in Savannah, Ga., were closed. Disney World is closed Sunday and Monday, with resort hotels staying open.
Emergencies were declared in Georgia and the Carolinas. President Trump received a briefing on Sunday and spoke with governors of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, the White House said.
At least 70 additional shelters were opened across Florida on Saturday to deal with the flood of people needing safe haven. Scott said at least 50,000 people are staying in 260 shelters across the state. He also pleaded with nurses to volunteer throughout Florida; the state desperately needs 1,000 nurses in its special-needs shelters.
As storm conditions began to sweep into Miami on Saturday, the bustling city had become a ghost metropolis, with no traffic and few signs of life in most places, though a crowd gathered at Vicky Bakery on Coral Way, the one place for miles that was open.
In downtown Miami, cranes spun like toys, and on Sunday morning one of them collapsed amid pounding winds. The winds were not the only thing to arrive in Miami.
Fire-rescue personnel raced to Little Haiti in response to a call of distress from a woman in labor, according to Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, and helped deliver the baby. “Mom and baby are good,” he said.
In Estero, on the west coast of Florida, thousands of people wrapped around the massive Germain Arena, which officials opened as a shelter Saturday and has a capacity of 7,000 to 8,000. At least six ambulances responded to people who were overcome in the muggy, 90-degree heat. Troopers, the National Guard and local police sought out people in wheelchairs and moved them to the front of the line, said Lt. Greg Bueno, public information officer for the Florida Highway Patrol.
Dianne and Riley Abshire, who moved to Florida six years ago from Ottawa, Ohio, were going through their first hurricane in an Estero house they trusted would stand up to Irma. Outside, gusting winds bent their neighbor’s hibiscus trees to the ground.
“I feel like I’m in a sardine can, and I don’t like it,” Dianne said. “My husband said he’ll duct-tape me to a chair if I try to open the front door.”
Officials at the Collier County emergency operations center in Naples said 15,000 people have filled its shelters, but they are trying to expand space in each location to accommodate more. Demand exceeded expectations as the forecast showed the area probably taking the full force of Irma’s impact.
The county said it will be difficult to house everyone who needs or wants to evacuate and urged people who can find shelter with friends or family to go there. Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said Saturday afternoon that the county is sheltering 22,000 people. The two counties combined have a population of about 1 million.
Officials also are concerned that wind gusts will send water over the Herbert Hoover Dike that holds back Lake Okeechobee, which covers more than 700 square miles. Evacuations have been ordered for cities and towns on the south side of the lake in Hendry, Palm Beach and Glades counties.
The storm already has heavily damaged some Caribbean islands, devastating Barbuda and tearing across Anguilla. Michael Joseph, president of the Red Cross in Antigua and Barbuda, said Barbuda is “uninhabitable” and in a “total blackout” with almost all of its infrastructure destroyed.
Stein reported from Miami, Lowery and Berman from Washington. Joel Achenbach in Miami, Patricia Sullivan in Estero, Scott Unger in Key West, Leonard Shapiro in Pompano Beach, Lori Rozsa in Gainesville, Rachelle Krygier in Caracas and Sarah Larimer, Lori Aratani, Thomas M. Gibbons-Neff, Steven Mufson, Jason Samenow and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report, which will be updated throughout the day.