Fierce Hurricane Irma slams into Florida Keys

MIAMI. — Hurricane Irma’s eyewall slammed into the Florida Keys yesterday, lashing the island chain with fearsome wind gusts as it bears down on the state’s west coast where a mass exodus has turned cities into ghost towns.

Irma, packing maximum sustained winds of 215 kilometres per hour, was upgraded overnight to a Category Four storm as it closed in on the Keys, the National Hurricane Centre said. Six million people — one third of the state’s population — have been ordered to evacuate their homes ahead of the monster storm.

The eye of the hurricane was 20 miles east-southeast of Key West, threatening dangerous storm surges up to 15 feet (4,5 meters) — enough to cover a house.

“EVERYONE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS . . . IT IS TIME TO HUNKER DOWN,” the NWS warned before the hurricane rammed into the tropical islands popular as a destination for fishing, boating and scuba diving.

For those still at home, it was too late to flee the wrath of one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to slam storm-prone Florida, after cutting a path of devastation across the Caribbean.

In Key West, police opened a “shelter of last resort” for those who had ignored evacuation orders. The cities of Naples, Fort Myers and the densely populated peninsulas of Tampa Bay on Florida’s west coast were in the crosshairs of the historic storm, which was churning slowly northwest at eight miles per hour.

“It’s going to be horrible,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said of Irma on NBC television yesterday morning. “Now we have to hunker down and watch out for each other.”

More than 430 000 homes and businesses were already without power, mainly in southern Florida, according to utility company Florida Power and Light, which said it had “safely shut down” one of two nuclear reactors at its Turkey Point power plant. — AFP.

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