Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 hurricane and the strongest to hit the Florida Keys in nearly six decades, was making landfall in the Sunshine State early Sunday, threatening catastrophic damage with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. More than 6.5 million residents in Florida and over 540,000 people in the Georgia coast were told to leave their homes.
Life-threatening storm surge is likely from the South Santee River southward to the Jupiter Inlet and on the peninsula from North Miami Beach to the Ochlockonee River, including the Florida Keys and Tampa Bay, according to the National Weather Service.
The center of the storm was moving northwest at about 8 mph at 8 a.m. Sunday.
Over 300,000 people in the state were without power Sunday morning even as destructive winds, flooding rain and inundating seas are likely to occur across Florida into Monday.
After raking through the Keys, the storm is expected to strike southwest Florida with Category 4 intensity Sunday, according to The Weather Channel.
Florida officials have asked over 6.5 million residents to evacuate, one of the largest emergency evacuations in the country's history, and Gov. Rick Scott has warned that it's "a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it," and that "once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you."
Irma was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane at 2 a.m. The storm could expose St. Petersburg to a direct hit, according to The New York Times.
Neither St. Petersburg nor Tampa, which was earlier expected to be directly hit, has taken a head-on blow from a major hurricane in nearly a century, according to The Associated Press.
At least 25 people have died in the Caribbean due to Irma.
"Unfortunately, there is no way the United States is going to avoid another catastrophic weather event," AccuWeather President Joel N. Myers said. "There will be massive damage in Florida. [It will be] the worst single hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992."
An extensive area of heavy rainbands had already formed well north of the center of Irma over much of the Florida Peninsula, The Weather Channel reported, and said more than 10 inches of rain had already triggered flooding that shut down a stretch of U.S. 1 in Ft. Pierce, Florida, with water reportedly into at least one home.