Florida braces for category-4 Hurricane Irma; over 1 million people lose power

MIAMI, Fla. – Millions of Florida residents took refuge in shelter homes on Sunday as Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, hit the state with 130-mph (210 kph) winds.

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Irma is the most intense U.S. hurricane landfall since Katrina. Its impact will redefine Florida.

Conditions from category-4 storm – rain and strong wind gusts – began to arrive in parts of Florida Saturday, and the storm itself is forecast to make landfall Sunday morning or early afternoon.

Torrential rains and lashing winds knocked out power to nearly 800,000 homes and businesses on the Florida Keys archipelago off the tip of southern Florida.

“You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the evacuation zones ahead of the storm’s predicted arrival.

“Pray for us,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said in an ABC News interview as his state braced for the massive storm, which has already left a trail of destruction through the Caribbean.

Irma, which prompted one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history, is expected to cause billions of dollars in damage to the third-most-populous U.S. state, a major tourism hub, with an economy comprising about 5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Irma was a Category 4 hurricane raging in the lower Florida Keys as of 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), on a path that will take it up Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast near population centers including Tampa and St. Petersburg, the NHC reported. Forecasters also warned tornadoes could form in large portions of the state.

Irma, which killed at least 22 people as it tore through Caribbean islands toward Florida, has already claimed at least one life in the state. Emergency responders in the Florida Keys said they pulled a man’s body from his pickup truck, which had crashed into a tree in high winds.

Ahead of the storm, officials in Florida had ordered a total of 6.3 million people, or about a third of the state’s population, to evacuate.

The NHC has put out a hurricane warning and a tropical storm warning stretching through almost all of Florida into Georgia and South Carolina, home to more than 20 million people.

Irma comes just days after Hurricane Harvey dumped record-setting rain in Texas, causing unprecedented flooding, killing at least 60 people and leaving an estimated $180 billion in property damage in its wake.

Irma, at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, has left more than 30 people dead across resort islands in the Caribbean.

Almost three months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through November.

Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 265 kph, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled US$26 billion, and at least 40 people died.