UPDATES: Hurricane Irma is pounding Florida, leaving cities on edge with a deadly weather threat looming as looters ransack shops.
Irma has lost some strength as it travels north along Florida’s west coast, and is now a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 177km/h. But forecasts warn it will remain a powerful storm as it flooded Miami streets and knocked out power to more than three million homes and businesses.
The cities and towns of Fort Myers and Tampa are now braced to feel the full effects of the storm in a few hours, after Naples was hit.
A storm surge warning has been issued for much of the Florida Peninsula and extended into southern Carolina.
The Hurricane Center warned this would bring the risk of “dangerous” and “life-threatening” inundation. It stated the threat was highest along Florida’s southwest coast and in Florida Keys, where it said the surge is expected to be “catastrophic” with 1.5m to three metres or more expected to inundate much of the island chain.
“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Governor Rick Scott said on Fox News Sunday as some 116,000 people statewide took refuge in shelters.
There are fears Tampa is unprepared for the massive wind, rain and storm surge headed its way.
All of southern Florida was feeling the storm’s effects on Sunday afternoon, with at least three killed, a woman forced to deliver her own baby and trees and apartment towers swaying in high winds.
TV crews have already caught locals looting in Fort Lauderdale, leading police to their arrests.
Nine people were caught by police after a local news station WPLG recorded the group ransacking a vacant sportswear store.
Men and women are shown in the video allegedly moving in and out of a broken window, as winds buffet an otherwise empty street and parking lot.
“Going to prison over a pair of sneakers is a fairly bad life choice,” Fort Lauderdale Police Deparment chief Rick Maglione said in a statement posted on Twitter.
“Stay home and look after your loved ones and be thankful they are safe.”
Two manatees were stranded after Hurricane Irma sucked the water out of Sarasota Bay, in Florida’s Manatee County.
Several people posted photos of the mammals, hoping rescue workers or wildlife officials would respond. Michael Sechler posted that the animals were far too massive to be lifted, so they gave them water. Marcelo Clavijo posted that a group of people eventually loaded the manatees onto tarps and dragged them to deeper water.
US President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in Florida, and ordered federal funds to help the state and NGO recovery work that will begin once the storm allows.
He called the storm “some big monster” as it battered the Florida coast.
“The bad news is that this is some big monster,” Trump said at the White House.
“Right now, we are worried about lives, not cost,” he said after returning from Camp David.
Earlier, the National Hurricane Center said the storm had maximum sustained winds of 195km/h, dropping it to a Category 3, the midpoint of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
Famous golfer Greg Norman has posted video of the hurricane hitting Florida from Jupiter Island. He captioned the video: “The relentless powerful monster Irma. 11+ hrs and counting.”
Sydney woman Marlies Laaper is riding out the hurricane in her Cape Coral cafe with her husband Uri and spoke to News Corp.
“It’s passing to the east of us, not the west. It’s taken another turn more to the inland of Florida.
“We can’t see much because all the windows and doors are boarded up with hurricane shutters and we are also hunkered down in an internal room where it is safest.
“Every now and then one of us goes to see what it looks like outside. The water is starting to rise.
“A mandatory evacuation order was announced yesterday morning for the area in Cape Coral where we live because it’s close to the water. So we evacuated to the building where the cafe is.
“This morning we woke up to find the mandatory evacuation area was increased to include the cafe building. We thought about going further north but to move with 8 people a dog and a cat is not so easy last minute so we decided to stay put.”
Irma had been one of the most powerful hurricanes ever seen in the Atlantic, killing 28 people in the Caribbean and pummelling Cuba with 11m, waves on Sunday.
Its arrival in the US forced one of the largest evacuations in American history.
The eye of Hurricane Irma was nearing the city of Naples in South Florida on Sunday afternoon local time.
It has already made landfall on nearby Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane. A 210 km/h wind gust was recorded at Marco Island Emergency Operations Center at about 3pm local time.
The National Hurricane Center said Irma had winds of 195km/h and was centred 30km south of Naples on Sunday afternoon. It was moving north at 19km/h. At that rate, the centre of the storm should come ashore sometime between 4 and 5pm local time.
A storm surge of 2.7m to 4.5m above ground level was reported there, according to the New York Times.
The storm has pushed water out of a bay in Tampa, but forecasters are telling people not to venture out there, because it’s going to return with a potentially deadly vengeance.
Fears grew how Tampa would deal with the storm after a July analysis by the Washington Post concluded that “the area is due for a major hurricane, and is not prepared. If a big one scores a direct hit, the damage would likely surpass Katrina.” According to the report Tampa the most vulnerable city in United States to a hurricane.
Largo resident William Zhang told news.com.au the mood was tense, that everyone was just waiting.
“It’s like someone has dropped a glass and everyone’s just watching it fall to the ground,” he said. “No one is outside. All the businesses in the area are closed, half since yesterday and all the gas stations have been out of gasoline for a couple of days.”
Mr Zhang had elected to stay in Largo in the Tampa Bay area and directly in Irma’s path to help his parents reinforce their house.
He said his concrete apartment building should “be very safe” from the worst effects of the hurricane and that many of his elderly neighbours had opted to remain. He said judging from the number of cars parked in his area, only a quarter of the residents of the surrounding buildings have fled.
While there has been no flooding yet, Mr Zhang’s building is in a flood zone. The power is already fluctuating but he said the real concerns will be when the power and water is cut off.
Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn, declared indefinite curfew in Florida city starting at 6pm local time.
Mr Buckhorn delivered a stark warning online for everyone in one of Florida’s most densely populated regions.
“We know we are ground zero for this storm. We have avoided it for 90 winds but our time has come to be ready,” he wrote on Twitter.
On Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, approximately 100 people were walking Sunday afternoon on what was Old Tampa Bay — a body of water near downtown. Hurricane Irma’s winds and low tide have pushed the water unusually far from its normal position. Some people are venturing as far as 180m out to get to the water’s new edge. The water is normally about 1m to 1.5m deep and reaches a seawall.
While residents on Florida’s west coast are bracing themselves for the devastating eye of the hurricane, which could generate 4.5m walls of water, the east coast is being threatened by a series of twisters.
Indeed, a “fast-moving tornado” has been reported to be seen on the ground at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, The Sun reports.
In Miami the storm downed two cranes in the city’s downtown with social media footage capturing the terrifying moment one of them toppled.
The city — given a last-moment reprieve from the worst of the storm — is suffering major electricity cuts as winds while the downtown area of the city is submerged with flood waters.
Waves poured over a Miami seawall, flooding streets a couple of blocks from the waterfront through the financial district and past consulates, leaving high rise apartment buildings standing like islands in the flood.
A Florida Sheriff’s deputy helping out at a shelter and a corrections officer on his way to work were killed in a head-on crash, according to the Miami Herald.
Hardee County Sheriff’s deputy Julie Bridges, a mum of one and officer for the past 18 years, crashed at 6.30am Sunday at Zolfo Springs, about 100km from Sarasota.
Sergeant Joseph Ossman was killed as he drove in to start his shift at Hardee County Correctional Institute.
Another man was killed after winds caused him to lose control of the truck he was driving through Monroe County, which contains Key West. He had been carrying a generator, local officials told ABC News.
Some 6.5 million people, about a third of the state’s population, had been ordered to evacuate southern Florida.
However, the impact of the storm could be felt in the neighbouring state of Georgia with a tropical storm warning issued for Atlanta, the first time that has happened in the city’s history. The warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected within the next 36 hours. Peak winds were expected to reach 48 to 64km/h with gusts of up to 88km/h.