HURRICANE Irma has ploughed into the Florida Keys, with three confirmed deaths due to the Category 4 storm.
Announcing itself with roaring winds, Hurricane Irma ploughed into the Florida Keys for the start of what could be a slow, ruinous march up the state’s west coast toward the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
As winds pushed a wall of water up to 4.5 metres high, Florida Governor Rick Scott implored: “Pray for us.”
“People ask what they can do for us,” Mr Scott said on Fox News Sunday. “Pray for us. We need volunteers, nurses. … I hope everybody will pray for us.”
At least 1.16 million customers are without power, including more than 500,000 in Miami-Dade County.
As the storm slammed into the mainland it downed a huge crane in downtown Miami with social media footage capturing the terrifying moment.
Whitecaps are forming on streets in the Brickell neighbourhood of Miami as the storm surge rushed into the city.
The eye of the Category 4 storm was 24km southeast of Key West, bringing winds up to 210km/h and threatening dangerous storm surges. The eyeball is where the most severe weather occurs while the eye of the storm brings calmer conditions.
The National Hurricane Centre announced the arrival of the eyeball in their 7am advisory (9pm AEDT).
Mr Scott warned the devastating storm surge from Irma will cause the waters to rise quickly and overwhelm everything in its path.
”This water is going to come in very quickly, it’s going to cover your first floor potentially or more and then eventually it’s going to come out. I don’t know how you’re going to survive that, ” he said.
With first responders unable to hit the streets because of the lashing wind and rain, Mr Scott said residents who haven’t evacuated or sought shelter are on their own.
“This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation!” the National Weather Service in Key West said earlier, urging those who had not heeded dire warnings to evacuate to take shelter “now to protect your life!”.
Florida’s Naples Mayor Bill Barnett said he had never dealt with a storm like this. “This is just a monster,” he said.
Earlier Florida Governor Rick Scott tweeted that life threatening storm surges were already impacting the Keys and were expected to spread to southwest Florida.
Flooding of up to 4.5 metres — enough to cover a house — were expected and some areas are already experiencing heavy rain and hurricane-force winds..
A tornado funnel cloud also formed off the coast of Fort Lauderdale on Saturday about 6.40pm (8.40am Sunday AEDT), with the US National Hurricane Centre warning that “a few” more were possible in south and central Florida.
Earlier the National Weather Service Key West said winds were “imminent” and told residents in the Florida Keys “it is time to hunker down”. In a tweet it advised people not to go outside, to get away from windows and to “put your shoes on now!”.
For the first time, a tropical storm warning has also been issued for the city of Atlanta.
The National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Georgia, said it was the first time such a warning had been issued for the metro Atlanta area.
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.
Hurricane Irma regained strength on Sunday as it began pommeling Florida, threatening almost the entire southeastern US state after cutting a deadly path of destruction through the Caribbean.
The storm — packing of winds of 210km/h — was upgraded to a Category 4 storm as it closed in on the Florida Keys.
It was expected to keep moving near or over the southwestern coast of the Florida Peninsula before travelling inland over the Florida panhandle and southwestern Georgia on Monday afternoon.
Hurricane Irma gained strength as it was set to make landfall in Florida on Sunday with a double barrel threat of destructive winds and life-threatening storm surges, prompting one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history.
The storm’s move to the west will potentially spare the highly populated areas of Tampa and Miami from the worst impacts.
But St Petersburg could get a direct hit instead. Neither St Peterburg or Tampa have suffered a major hurricane in nearly a century.
More than 6.3 million — nearly a third of Florida’s population — have been ordered to evacuate.
MacDill air force Base, the military installation home to US Central Command, issued mandatory evacuation orders.
At least 25 people have been killed since Irma began its devastating march through the Caribbean earlier this week.
Terrified Cubans who rode out Irma in coastal towns — after the storm made landfall on Friday as a maximum-strength Category 5 storm on the Camaguey archipelago — reported “deafening” winds, uprooted trees and power lines, and blown rooftops.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, but officials reported “significant damage.” A total of 1.5 million people were evacuated.
Authorities in Havana were evacuating people from low-lying districts at risk from Atlantic storm surges. Enormous waves lashed the Malecon, the capital’s emblematic seafront, causing seawaters to penetrate some 820 feet into the capital, AFP journalists found.
In Florida, cities on both the east and west coasts took on the appearance of ghost towns, as nervous residents heeded insistent evacuation orders.
Irma is so wide that authorities were bracing for destructive storm surges on both coasts and the Keys.
And hurricane-force winds are expected to lash the peninsula as it rolls north toward Georgia.
On highway 75 along the western coast of Florida, a steady stream of cars pressed northward as thousands fled at the last minute.
Strip malls, fast food restaurants and retail giants were all closed for business.
In Key West, police had opened a “shelter of last resort” for those who had ignored mandatory evacuation orders.
Scott Abraham, who lives on the fifth floor of a beachfront apartment building in Miami Beach, is planning to ignore evacuation orders and ride the storm out with his wife and two kids.
“If I lived in a house I would have left, but if it gets flooded here it’s going to take a week at least to come back. I don’t want that,” he said.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said all 20.6 million Floridians should prepare to flee.
Cuban-American Orlando Reyes, 82, was forced to leave his assisted living facility in Miami Beach.
“It is frightening,” he told AFP at a shelter in Miami. “We had to leave without a cent, without taking a bath, or bringing anything.”
Among hundreds who elected to stay out the storm was Key Largo car detailer Phillip Hodes’s father Mike, who remained at home despite his family’s urgings for him to leave with them.
“My dad’s staying down in the Keys. I guess he’s crazy. They live in a nice concrete house and it’s got impact windows and doors to hopefully keep him safe,” said Mr Hodes, 24, who is packed into an Orlando hotel room with his mum, dog Rascal and six others.
“We tried to convince him to leave but he didn’t really think it would get bad.
Irma’s predicted path has shifted to the west coast of Florida, likely sparing former Sydney yacht broker David Nichols who chose to stay in his home in Fort Lauderdale, on the southeast side of the state.
Mr Nichols, who has lived in Florida for 40 years and endured many hurricanes including 1992’s catastrophic Hurricane Andrew, is still expecting a rough time as he rides out the hurricane with wife Sara, in-laws and the family cat Newton. “The track has veered to the left so it’s going to give us a big breather,” Mr Nichols told AAP.
“It’s just about being like a boy scout — be prepared.” The Nichols are in a single level home on Fort Lauderdale’s New River and they have boarded up most of the windows.
The storm smashed through a string of Caribbean islands, beginning with tiny Barbuda on Wednesday, followed by the holiday islands of St Barts and St Martin.
Also affected were the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos. The Bahamas were spared Irma’s worst.
“Houses are smashed, the airport is out of action,” St Barts resident Olivier Toussaint said.
“Upside-down cars are in the cemeteries. Boats are sunk in the marina, shops are destroyed.” Another powerful storm, Hurricane Jose, had been heading toward the same string of Caribbean islands Irma has pommeled in recent days, but the area received a welcome reprieve when the storm began to gradually weaken and shift course towards the north.
The deteriorating weather had grounded aircraft and prevented boats from bringing relief supplies to hard-hit islands.
The US military was mobilising thousands of troops and deploying several large ships to aid with evacuations and humanitarian relief, as the air force removed scores of planes from the southern United States.