Florida is set to be hit by the ‘most catastrophic storm’ it has ever seen in the coming hours, with Hurricane Irma bringing tornadoes, a 15ft sea surge, flooding and 130mph winds.
In the last few hours, Irma has strengthened to a Category 4 storm as it closed in on the island chain known as the Florida Keys, the US National Hurricane Center said.
Its eye is expected to cross the Lower Florida Keys this morning before moving “near or along” the peninsular state’s west coast, where it threatened storm surges of up to 4.6 meters – enough to cover a house.
Here is the current, real-time satellite view of the storm
More than seven million people have been evacuated from the state, with tens of thousands of people huddling in shelters. At least 170,000 homes were without power as the 350 miles (560km) wide storm unleashed deadly winds and rain.
‘Just get out of the way’
“The storm is here,” said Rick Scott, Florida’s governor, as he urged people to get out of its path. “If you’re in an evacuation zone you’ve got to get to a shelter or a place that’s higher ground … there’s not many hours left.”
Florida’s streets were deserted on Saturday as the state’s 20 million people prepared for the arrival of one of the most powerful storms ever to hit their region.
Donald Trump, who gathered his cabinet at Camp David, urged those in the path of the storm to obey all official instructions.
“Just get out of its way,” he said. “Property is replaceable but lives are not and safety has to come first.”
The U.S. Coast Guard, FEMA and all Federal and State brave people are ready. Here comes Irma. God bless everyone!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 10 September 2017
Prime Minister Theresa May said work was taking place with US authorities to ensure British expats and tourists in Florida were protected as millions of locals and visitors flee to safety.
But the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has said its ability to provide assistance to British citizens may be “extremely limited” and advised those affected to make their own contingency plans.
Fears that Miami would take a direct hit from the storm’s violent centre were allayed when forecasters altered its expected track to the west. But they warned that the city could still be badly affected.
Meanwhile some projections have Irma maintaining hurricane strength as she passes the length of Florida and into Georgia.
Irma leaves behind a trail of devastation in the Caribbean, where at least 25 people have been killed, including 11 people on French St Martin and St Barts, four in the US Virgin Islands, three on Puerto Rico, two on Dutch St Maarten, one person in Anguilla and a two-year-old in Barbuda.
Still a Category 5 storm when it crashed into Cuba in the early hours of Saturday, Irma weakened to Category 3 as it tore along the island’s northern coastline, downing power lines, bending palm trees and sending huge waves crashing over sea walls.