(TNS) - Hurricane Irma retained its 130 mph strength early Sunday afternoon as its eye crossed the Florida Keys and headed toward the Gulf coast, where Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa rushed preparations for the Category 4 storm’s arrival.
The storm, already huge, grew wider overnight, with hurricane-force winds extending across 160 miles and tropical-force winds extending across 440 miles.
Although the forecast for South Florida improved, the region still faced a day of hazardous weather, with the worst of it coming Sunday through late afternoon.
Strong gusts uprooted trees and knocked down branches. Gusts near 90 mph were reported off Key Biscayne. More than 1.25 million South Florida customers lost power. A construction crane was blown over in downtown Miami. A 69 mph gust was recorded at Palm Beach International Airport early Sunday afternoon.
Although a storm surge warning for Broward and Palm Beach counties was been canceled, heavy rain was expected, with 6 to 8 inches possible in coastal Palm Beach County and 8 to 10 inches in Broward and central Palm Beach.
“This is a serious, still life-threatening event,” Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said. “Our community has coastal areas and low-lying areas that are going to be subject to widespread flooding, on top of extensive wind damage.”
The storm landed on Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles from Key West, at 9:10 a.m. Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said. A gust of 120 mph was recorded at nearby Big Pine Key, home of the National Key Deer Refuge.
“It’s wicked, this is unbelievable,” said Vic Lamorte, bunkered in a hurricane-shuttered three-story concrete house in Tavernier in the Middle Keys, in a telephone interview. “When I say whipping, I mean it’s whipping outside. And it’s howling, unbelievable howling.”
In South Florida Saturday night, streets glistened with rain and became free of vehicles as curfews were imposed at 4 p.m. Saturday in Broward, 3 p.m. in Palm Beach and 7 p.m. in the city of Miami.
A “large and dangerous tornado” swept west through central Broward County toward the Everglades Saturday evening, the National Weather Service said. Other tornado reports came in, as powerful rotating thunderstorms from the hurricane’s outer bands led the weather service to issue tornado warnings across Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Shelters filled up across South Florida, as mandatory evacuations emptied coastal neighborhoods. In Palm Beach County, more than 16,000 people planned to sleep at the county’s 15 shelters — about a third of the county’s capacity. Broward opened extra shelters.
As the storm moved north Sunday, it was forecast to flood coastal neighborhoods of southwest Florida with a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet.
“Irma is expected bring life-threatening wind and storm surge to the Florida Keys and southwestern Florida as an extremely dangerous major hurricane tonight through Sunday,” the hurricane center said.
Hurricane Irma could dump as much as 20 inches of rain on parts of Palm Beach County, said Bill Johnson, director of emergency management.
“That is a significant amount of rain for Palm Beach County,” said Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s director of emergency management. “But it won’t be anything like Houston.”
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