Florida has been pounded hard by what President Donald Trump called “some big monster”, as Hurricane Irma tore into the state, leaving a trail of damage and death and causing destruction that will likely take weeks to repair.
At least three people were killed as the category four hurricane made landfall in the Florida Keys and worked its way up the southwest coast, leaving more than two million properties and businesses without power and millions of people hunkering down in their homes or emergency shelters.
As Florida Governor Rick Scott asked “everybody” to pray for the state, Irma passed over several cities, striking land for a second time close to Naples and making its way towards Tampa, which was told by one meteorologist to prepare for “six hours of hell”.
Television footage from various locations across the east of the state showed palm trees bent over under the force of huge winds, driving rain and flash floods caused by the storm surge. Naples was expected to see a surge of between 10-15ft and the city’s airport reported a wind gust of 142 mph.
“The bad news is that this is some big monster,” Mr Trump told reporters at the White House, after being briefed about the path of the storm and the preparations that had been made by the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Right now, we are worried about lives, not cost.”
He vowed he would soon pay a visit to Florida.
The White House said the President, who was with his cabinet at Camp David, also spoke to the governors of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, as Irma moved northwards.
In Hollywood, on Florida’s east coast, streets were largely deserted as winds picked up, bending palm trees and downing power lines, even though the city is more than 100 mph from the centre of the path of the storm.
While certain cities were preparing for the full force of the storm, the size of which has not been seen by some locations close to a century, the power of Irma is likely to be felt by millions of people. Before Irma made landfall, up to seven million in the country’s southeast people received warnings to either leave.
The hurricane first made landfall at Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys at 9.10am with top sustained winds of up to 130 mph. It struck land a second time at Marco Island, close to Naples, with 115 mph winds at 3.35pm.
Barbuda, Hurricane Irma – in pictures
In the Florida Keys, a 120-mile string of islands that start south of Miami and run down to the fabled resort of Key West, up to 30,000 people listened to urgent requests for residents to evacuate. However, an untold number of residents declined to leave; many said they had faced and survived similar storms many times before.
John Huston, who was riding out the storm at his Key Largo home, was already seeing flooding in his yard before the arrival of high tide. “Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” he told the AP by text message. “Shingles are coming off.”
In the centre of Miami, one of two dozen construction cranes that stand on the skyline, collapsed onto a high-rise building under the force of Irma’s winds.
There was no immediate word on any damage or injuries. City officials said it would have taken about two weeks to have moved the cranes out of the course of the storm.
“Once this system passes through, it’s going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives,” Brock Long, the FEMA chief, told Fox News.
The state’s governor has activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
Forecasters warned that after charting up Florida’s west coast, a weakened Irma could push into Georgia and beyond. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, some 200 miles from the sea.
Given its sheer size and strength – and its projected course – Irma could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
Hurricane Andrew smashed into Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26bn, and at least 40 people died.