Latest: Hurricane Irma begins assault on Florida Keys

Latest: Hurricane Irma begins assault on Florida Keys

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Update 1.53pm: Hurricane Irma began its assault on Florida today, with the storm’s northern eyewall reaching the lower Florida Keys as a powerful category four storm.

Irma lashed the area with maximum sustained winds near 130 mph and the US National Hurricane Centre said it was expected to remain a powerful storm as it moved through the Florida Keys and near the state’s west coast.

This morning the hurricane was centred about 20 miles east-southeast of Key West, Florida, and was moving north-northwest at 8 mph. The Key West International Airport measured sustained winds of 50 mph with a gust of up to 70 mph, according to the hurricane centre.

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for a wide swathe of Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in south Florida. The band of rain and tornado-producing cells was moving quickly, officials said. There were no immediate reports of tornadoes touching down. Tens of thousands of people huddling in shelters watched for updates.

In the Tampa Bay area, access to all of Pinellas County’s barrier islands, including the popular spring break destination of Clearwater Beach, was shut off. The leading edge of the immense storm bent palm trees and spit rain across south Florida, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, as the eye approached Key West.

Update 10.02am: Hurricane Irma regained strength as it closed in on the Florida Keys early today, as forecasters monitored a crucial shift in its trajectory that could keep its ferocious eye off the southwest Florida coast and over warm gulf water. The hurricane re-strengthened to category-four status with maximum sustained winds near 130 mph.

The US National Hurricane Centre said Irma was expected to gain a little more strength as it moved through the Straits of Florida and remain a powerful hurricane as it approached Florida.

Tens of thousands of people huddling in shelters watched for updates as the storm swung to the west, now potentially sparing Tampa as well as Miami the catastrophic head-on blow forecasters had been warning about for days.

But those few miles meant St Petersburg could get a direct hit, rather than its more populous twin across Tampa Bay. Neither city has suffered a major hurricane in nearly a century.

Hurricane Irma is closing in on the Florida Keys with top winds of 120mph as forecasters monitored a crucial shift in its trajectory that could keep its ferocious eye off the state’s south-west coast and over warm gulf water.

Tens of thousands of people huddling in shelters watched for updates as the storm swung to the west, now potentially sparing Tampa as well Miami the catastrophic head-on blow forecasters had been warning about.
But those few miles meant St Petersburg could get a direct hit, rather than its more populous twin across Tampa Bay.

The leading edge of the immense storm bent palm trees and spit rain across South Florida, knocking out power to more than 170,000 homes and businesses, as the eye approached Key West.
If the centre of the storm keeps moving over warm Gulf of Mexico water, it may regain more strength before making landfall again.

St Petersburg, like Tampa, has not taken a head-on blow from a major hurricane in nearly a century.
Clearwater would be next, and then the storm would finally go inland north west of Ocala.
Irma currently has top sustained winds of 120mph and is moving northwards at about 6mph.
More than 170,000 homes and businesses in Florida have lost power and Florida Power and Light said more than half of those shutdowns were in the Miami-Dade area, where about 600,000 people have been ordered to evacuate.

The company has said it expects millions of people to lose power, with some areas experiencing prolonged outages.
The company said it has assembled the largest pre-storm workforce in US history, with more than 16,000 people ready to respond.

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