MIAMI - The fierce winds of Hurricane Irma regained Category 4 strength early Sunday, and the massive storm already has caused hundreds of thousands of power outages across South Florida as its leading edge lashes several major population centers. Still hours from landfall in the Florida Keys, Irma's growing intensity underscores fears that the storm could ravage the state with destruction not seen in a generation.
As of 5 a.m., the National Weather Service expected the storm's 130 mph winds to soon hit near Key West, where storm surges could reach a devastating five to 10 feet, before the hurricane slowly proceeds up the state's west coast.
"A very dangerous day is unfolding in the Florida Keys and much of West Florida," Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said in an early morning update Sunday. "It certainly could inundate the entire island. That's why everyone in the Keys was urged so strongly to evacuate."
And due to the size of the hurricane, weather officials warn that Florida's east coast - home to Miami and Fort Lauderdale -- also remains in danger from winds and storm surges expected to easily overwhelm some areas.
More than 6 million residents were ordered evacuated by Saturday evening, as Irma's outer bands scraped Florida, forcing thousands to cram into shelters. Gov. Rick Scott, R, sounded dire warnings about the storm, urging residents in evacuation zones to leave their homes immediately.
"Once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you," Scott said Saturday at a news conference in Sarasota.
While the National Hurricane Center had downgraded Irma to a Category 3 storm Saturday, the storm was upgraded again to Category 4 early Sunday. At 5 a.m., weather officials said the storm was plodding northwest at about 8 mph, placing it on pace to reach Naples by about 5 p.m. Forecasters are predicting a second landfall, possibly near Tampa, overnight on Sunday into Monday.
"It could make landfall anywhere along the west coast," Brennan said. "It's really hard to predict where the eye will make landfall on the west coast once it leaves the Keys."
Regardless of its track, all of Florida will probably experience damaging winds, rains, flooding and possibly tornadoes. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for all of southern Florida and the Florida Keys.
The National Weather Service said southwestern Florida could see storm surges up to 15 feet if peak surge happens during high tide. A storm surge warning is in effect for much of the Florida peninsula.
"This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it," Scott said.
Counties including Broward on the east coast have imposed curfews, and at least 70 more shelters were opening across the state Saturday. At least 50,000 people are staying in 260 state shelters, Scott said. He implored nurses to volunteer throughout Florida; the state desperately needs 1,000 nurses in its special-needs shelters.
By Saturday afternoon, storm conditions had swept into Miami, now a ghost metropolis. There was no traffic on typically jammed roads and highways. Almost all stores appeared to be closed. By midday, dozens of people crowded Vicky Bakery on Coral Way, the one place for miles that was open. In downtown Miami, cranes spun like toys. A wind gust of 70 mph was recorded at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Saturday afternoon.
At the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center, Fire Chief Dave Downey said that after the storm passes, his teams will deploy to the Florida Keys and to southwest Florida to assist with rescue efforts. The question, he said, "is how fast can we get into the Keys, how fast can we get into the west coast." The likelihood that the storm will make a direct hit on the Keys, he said, "terrifies all of us."
Emergency managers in Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, were forced by the track of the storm to abandon their Emergency Operations Center in Marathon, in the Middle Keys, and relocate to relatively high ground in Key Largo, at the northern end of the island chain. Downey said he feared that the storm could knock out the Overseas Highway, which would hamper rescue efforts.
That would necessitate mobilizing by air and water. But he said his department's helicopters had been moved ahead of the storm to Orlando, to keep them from being damaged.
He said he spoke Saturday to a counterpart in Marco Island, a small community south of Naples. "The people who haven't evacuated, they know who they are and where they are."
Downey described the triage of a first response - the fact that rescue teams will go looking for someone who has called 911 and then encounter five more people in need along the way.
"You hear the first person scream, you think that's the worst. I'm more concerned about the people we haven't heard from," the chief said.
In Estero, on the west coast of Florida, thousands of people wrapped around the massive Germain Arena, which officials opened as a shelter Saturday and has a capacity of 7,000 to 8,000. At least six ambulances have responded to people who were overcome in the muggy, 90-degree heat. Troopers, the National Guard and local police sought out people in wheelchairs and moved them to the front of the line, said Lt. Greg Bueno, public information officer for the Florida Highway Patrol.
Leaning on a cane, Betty Sellers, 68, and her son, Doug, 49, got in line at 9:30 a.m. and were still 100 people away from the front doors. They had driven up to Estero from Naples because "the shelters were mostly closed there," she said.
Officials at the Collier County emergency operations center in Naples said 15,000 people have filled its shelters, but they are trying to expand space in each location to accommodate more. Demand exceeded expectations as the forecast showed the area probably taking the full force of Irma's impact.
The county said it will be difficult for it to house everyone who needs or wants to evacuate in shelters and urged people who can find shelter with friends or family to go there. Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said Saturday afternoon that the county is sheltering 22,000 people. The two counties combined have a population of about 1 million.
Officials are also concerned that wind gusts will send water over the Herbert Hoover Dike that holds back Lake Okeechobee, which covers more than 700 square miles. Evacuations have been ordered for cities and towns on the south side of the lake in Hendry, Palm Beach and Glades counties.
The storm has already heavily damaged some Caribbean islands, killing at least 22 people. In St. Martin, 25 U.S. citizens were evacuated on a C-130 military aircraft Friday from Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort. Resort officials said another evacuation is expected. Michael Joseph, president of the Red Cross in Antigua and Barbuda, said Barbuda is "uninhabitable" and in a "total blackout" with almost all of its infrastructure wiped out. A Marine expeditionary unit and a Navy dock landing ship arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and patients in need of medical care were evacuated from St. Thomas.
For some families, the hurricane has affected loved ones in the Caribbean and now Florida.
Since early Wednesday, when Hurricane Irma tore across the Caribbean island of St. Martin, Gretchen and Peter Bogacz have been hunkered down at the Hotel L'Esplanade with no power or running water, trying to find out if assistance was on the way. But with the airport seriously damaged, there was no way out.
Meanwhile, Irma was headed toward their 12-year-old daughter, Isabella, as well as Peter Bogacz's parents, who planned to ride out the storm together at home in Sarasota,.
The situation is overwhelming for Gretchen's sister, Natalie Grinnell, who is urgently monitoring the forecasts from her home in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
"My worry for my loved ones is pervasive," she wrote in an email to The Post.
In the United States, local, state and federal officials have offered ominous warnings as the storm zeroed in on Florida, making clear how much danger they felt the Sunshine State could face in coming days. William "Brock" Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged people from Alabama to North Carolina to monitor and prepare for the storm, calling it "a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or some of the southeastern states."
About 540,000 people in Georgia and 44,000 in South Carolina had also been ordered evacuated by Sunday evening. Airports throughout Florida and in Savannah, Georgia, were closed. Disney World is closed Sunday and Monday, with resort hotels staying open.
At a shelter inside Pompano Beach High School on the southeast coast of Florida, videos of Irma's devastation in the Caribbean were constantly being aired on two big-screen TVs set up in the cafeteria, where 280 evacuees were sheltered in place on Saturday afternoon. They ate a lunch of sausage pizza, canned corn, applesauce and milk or juice. Mayor Mark Fisher stopped by to thank people for evacuating to the shelter.
It is one of 20 set up by Broward County. Three of the shelters are pet-friendly, though not the one at the high school. Another is specifically for people with special medical needs.
Infants, parents and grandparents all crammed into an at-capacity emergency shelter at the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition. There were pets, cots, a few birds and wheelchairs -- lots of wheelchairs. Two elderly people, one with diabetes already feeling fatigued, said they came with little food and no beds, so they'd be sleeping in their wheelchairs until the storm passes.
Long had a blunt message for those in the Florida Keys: "You put your life in your own hands by not evacuating," he said on CNN. But some locals refused to budge.
"It's going to be a fun ride," said Jason Wasser, who had a few drinks at Don's Place. "All of our friends are here, our family, why bother leaving? We're all going to die eventually, so why not have a good time with it?"
- Achenbach and Stein reported from Miami, Lowery and Zezima from Washington. Patricia Sullivan in Estero, Scott Unger in Key West, Leonard Shapiro in Pompano Beach, Lori Rozsa in Gainesville and Rachelle Krygier in Caracas contributed to the report. Lori Aratani, Mark Berman, Thomas M. Gibbons-Neff, Matea Gold, Jason Samenow and Sarah Larimer in Washington contributed reporting.
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