Irma’s Fearsome Winds Reach Florida Shores, With Full Strike Yet to Come

In Miami, the storm was announcing its soggy might with periods of heavy rain, electricity that wobbled in and out and gusts strong enough to make walking difficult. Around the state, more than 100,000 people had already lost power.

Even when the rain and winds quieted down, Irma found another way to make noise: A National Weather Service alert blared from cellphones in parts of Miami-Dade County just after 7:30 p.m., warning of potential tornadoes.


A hotel guest watched the increasingly bad weather blow by in Miami on Saturday. Many buildings in Florida, unlike in the Caribbean, are built to withstand powerful hurricanes.

Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

But officials emphasized that the greatest danger lay in the water. Mr. Scott said the storm surge could reach 15 feet in places. “Do not think the storm is over when the wind slows down,” he said. “The storm surge will rush in, and it could kill you.”

Over the previous few days, Irma had already reduced a string of Caribbean islands nearly to rubble. It had killed at least 25 people by the time it made landfall in Cuba Friday night as a Category 5, trampling directly through the island’s northern coast.

The hurricane was downgraded to Category 3 as it moved away from Cuba on Saturday, but gained strength and was reclassified as Category 4 early Sunday as its eye approached the Florida Keys.

With phone lines cut, there was little word yet of how coastal Cuba’s residents or tourist businesses — a significant economic driver — had fared. Residents in the central provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila awoke Saturday to see whole houses destroyed, roofs ripped off warehouses and downed trees scattered around like so many matchsticks.

Elsewhere, the power had gone out, while the coastal town of Caibarién was under several feet of water. The post-storm outlook was not encouraging: For one thing, most people in small coastal communities live in one-story buildings.


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In Florida, unlike the Caribbean, many buildings are constructed to withstand powerful hurricanes. But if the projections for the storm hold, cities all along Florida’s west coast will confront storm surges that could inundate whole neighborhoods.

In recent days, the projected path of the storm bounced between Florida’s east and west coasts. By Saturday, however, the models were converging, pointing to the area between Naples and St. Petersburg.

For officials and residents up and down the Gulf Coast, it was time to make new plans.

In Collier County, which includes Naples, last-minute evacuation orders went out on Friday and Saturday. All of Collier’s more than two dozen shelters had filled by Saturday afternoon, prompting officials to open two more, though they warned arrivals to bring their own supplies and leave pets behind. They were still searching for more shelters in the evening.


A bust of John F. Kennedy was secured ahead of Hurricane Irma in North Bay Village, in Miami-Dade County.

Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Space was so tight that in one flood-prone area, county officials told people living in two-story homes to stay put.

“We thought we were safe like 36 hours ago,” said a Naples Police Department official who declined to be identified because the official was not authorized to discuss the situation.

More than 390 shelters had opened across the state, receiving more than 72,000 people, and more were opening on Saturday night to try to meet demand. Mr. Scott asked for volunteers to help at special-needs shelters.

“All available nurses, if you’ll please respond,” he said at the news conference.

At Largo High School, one of more than a dozen shelters in Pinellas County, hundreds of evacuees colonized classrooms and auditoriums, assembling makeshift beds and sitting areas from whatever they could bring from home — air mattresses, blankets, light furniture.

Sherrie Webber, 64, and her husband, who live in nearby Pinellas Park, arrived at the school with a chaise longue to sleep on and the heart medication she has been taking since her open-heart surgery a year ago. It was her first time being forced to evacuate in 46 years of living there.


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“My husband retires in May,” she said, frustrated by the timing. “We’re moving to Washington State. So I wasn’t exactly expecting this to happen now.”

As of Saturday night, 29 hospitals, 239 assisted-living facilities and 56 other health care facilities in the state have been evacuated, according to Jason Mahon, a public information officer at the Florida State Emergency Operations Center.

The storm is so vast, stretching more than 300 miles, and so powerful, with winds reaching 130 miles an hour, that virtually no place in southern Florida could be considered completely out of danger.


The first winds of Hurricane Irma in Miami on Saturday.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But one of the most imperiled parts of the state was the Keys, the string of pearls dangling for more than 100 miles from the state’s southern tip.

Forecasters said hurricane-force winds would begin hitting the Keys by daybreak Sunday. Those who had ignored orders to evacuate could only hunker down and hope for the best behind hurricane-impact windows, metal storm curtains or hastily built plywood barriers.

“This is the big one, the hurricane we have all feared,” said Roman Gastesi, the county administrator for Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys.

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Even the county’s emergency operations center was forced to flee its Marathon headquarters Saturday. Most of the staff went to the Ocean Reef resort in Key Largo, said the county spokeswoman, Cammy Clark.

At the Key West Bed and Breakfast, Jody Carlson and the six people on their way to ride out the storm with her could do little more than trust in the Bahamian shipbuilders who built her three-story wooden guesthouse at least 120 years ago. Up until Saturday morning, she had been convinced Key West would be spared.

Then she checked the latest advisory. “I started feeling a little queasy,” said Ms. Carlson, who has lived in Key West for more than 40 years and weathered past hurricanes — though none this strong. “Had I known it was going to change, and not head north, I would have left. But now there are no gas stations open. There are no hotel rooms, I’m sure. I have a dog and a cat. And my cat screams every time he’s with the dog.”


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Some Floridians were given no choice but to clear out.

About 400 homeless people who live in a community of cabins and tents in a low-lying parcel of land near St. Petersburg, which has a sizable homeless population, had to leave after a mandatory evacuation order.

In Miami, the police invoked the Baker Act, a state law that allows authorities to institutionalize people if they pose a danger to themselves, to force the city’s homeless into shelters.


Robert McCarthy and his son Brian McCarthy loading lumber they planned to use for home protection outside a Lowe’s in Port Orange, Fla., on Saturday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the preparations drummed on. The mayors of Miami and the city of Miami Beach issued curfews starting Saturday evening. All along Interstate 75, the major north-south artery on the Gulf Coast, workers had lowered the lighting fixtures that normally sit atop high steel poles, so they would offer less resistance to the wind and have a better chance of surviving.

Brig. Gen. Ralph Ribas of the Florida National Guard said that more than 7,000 troops were positioned around the state and would be ready to move once the winds died down to tropical storm levels.

Because the storm was so vast, the Coast Guard positioned its response force in New Orleans. It also declared “Condition Zulu” at the Tampa, St. Petersburg and other major ports, forcing the suspension of all activity there.

The images of Irma’s rampage through the Caribbean, just after Hurricane Harvey swamped Texas, seemed to add to the anxiety.

Even as officials were trying to assess the wreckage on islands including Barbuda, Antigua and St. John, where the aftermath was so disorienting that people had resorted to a community Facebook page to find information on friends and family, they were forced to confront the fresh emergency of Hurricane Jose. Wielding winds of over 130 m.p.h., that storm caused a scare as it passed by the region on Saturday, but it headed north into open ocean without reports of major additional damage. It was not expected to threaten the continental United States.

With Hurricane Irma expected to move up the west coast of the Florida and then to Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, it was difficult to judge how many people in the Southeast might be left on their own, and for how long.

Officials said people in the direct path of the storm should have two weeks of supplies. But in the days before landfall, there was a run on basic goods, with shelves picked clean of water and many gas stations left with only fumes. By Saturday night, people had to make do with what they had.


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Once the hurricane moves on, Keys residents who stayed could find themselves cut off from the mainland — and from food, gas and other supplies — if any one of their 42 bridges is damaged. All Keys hospitals were closed, and the local authorities said emergency responders were pulling out. The holdouts were on their own.

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