Irma’s fierce eyewall battered the Lower Keys early Sunday as the record-breaking hurricane descended on the low-lying chain of islands curling off South Florida.
The north side of Irma’s eye, about 23 miles wide, began brushing Key West at daybreak, hammering the islands with waves and gusty winds. Landfall, which is not officially declared until half the eye comes ashore, is expected any time. Social media posts showed white-topped waves rushing across streets and trees whipping in the wind.
At 8 a.m., Irma was located 20 miles southeast of Key West, with sustained winds still reaching 130 mph, National Hurricane Center forecasters said.
Irma’s eye should move over the Lower Keys shortly, forecasters said, before the storm rolls up Florida’s Gulf Coast. Hurricane-force winds extend 80 miles, likely guaranteeing widespread damage. Tropical storm force winds reach another 220 miles from Irma’s center.
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Across the islands and on the mainland, Wind gusts picked up throughout the morning, with an 89 mph gust measured at the Key West National Weather Service Forecast Office and sustained 46 mph winds at Tamiami Airport in West Kendall.
Key West could see widespread, “catastrophic” damage, hurricane specialist Mike Brennan said. “The storm surge on top of that can literally wipe structures entirely away.”
In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, tropical storm force winds could last for hours, through the afternoon, he said.
Storm surge could all deal a double-barreled blow to the islands as the storm pushes rising water from the east, turns and hits the west side of the islands, he said.
“It could be a very long recovery period down here,” he said.
The storm has picked up speed to 8 mph, but that’s still a slow pace that could put Key West and the Lower Keys in the grip of hurricane conditions for 15 long hours. Tropical storm winds of up to 73 mph could last well over a day for up to 35 hours, said National Weather Service Key West meteorologist Adam Futterman. Forecasters do not declare landfall until half the storm’s eye passes.
Storm surge remains a very dangerous threat to the chain of low-lying islands, with water levels expected to rise between five and 10 feet through the morning. Flooding could be worse because the surge coincides with the arrival of high tides, he said. The highest elevations in the Keys are in Key West and Key Largo, but most of the other islands sit less than six feet above sea level, he said. Just before 4 a.m., water levels around Key West were already two feet above normal, the Service reported.
“This is quite disconcerting to the folks who didn’t get the message,” Futterman said of the stubborn Conchs who stayed behind. “That’s a very dangerous threat to the people who have not evacuated.”
The storm’s continued westward movement has likely spared the Miami area the storm’s worst wrath. Even so, Irma’s immense size and strength — pushing hurricane-force winds outward up to 70 miles from the center and tropical-storm force winds to 205 miles — mean it can wreak considerable havoc in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, even from a distance.
And the Keys will fare much worse. The wind gauge atop the National Weather Service’s Key West Office recorded a hurricane-force gust of 79 mph in the early morning hours Sunday. With Irma’s strongest winds and eyewall not expected to arrive until daybreak, the outlook is not good.
Chip Casper, a senior forecaster for the Service, told The Weather Channel that Irma would be worst for the Keys since Donna in 1960, which crossed Marathon as a Cat 4 with 130 mph winds.
But Irma was a much larger storm, he said, and on a path closer to Key West. It could first inundate city streets with sea water, then pound it with major hurricane winds for 12 hours or more.
“We are expecting a very damaging storm surge just before sunrise,” he said.
Irma has finally made a long-awaited turn and should continue moving to the north-northwest over the next 36 hours as it picks up speed, forecasters said at 5 a.m. As it runs parallel to the Gulf Coast, predicting where it makes landfall remains difficult, forecasters said. Over the next 12 to 36 hours, Irma could weaken as it moves up the coast and brushes land, they said. However, they still believe the storm will be a major hurricane as it nears Tampa.
A potential strike by Irma in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area would be the first direct hit from a powerful hurricane in more than 90 years.
Meanwhile, powerful winds and stinging rain continue to buffet Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.
A tornado was sighted in Oakland Park Saturday night, and the National Weather Service issued a tornado for every place between Monroe and Palm Beach counties. Florida officials urged residents not to let down their guard against Irma or assume that the storm’s worst has already passed, which is surely not true.
“Don’t be the guy that gets killed by the tree, all right?” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said at a press conference, warning people against leaving their refuges. “Every year, we have it – the guy that’s standing around, the tree falls on their head. Don’t be the guy or gal that gets killed by the tree.”
While the forecast track shows the storm’s center crossing south of Big Pine, fierce winds and storm surge will likely be widespread. Water could be as high as 10 feet throughout the Keys. From Card Sound Road to Miami Beach, a four- to six-foot surge is possible, hurricane center officials said.
Ed Rappaport, the acting director of the hurricane center, said Hurricane Irma’s impending visit to the Florida Keys and the state’s west coast is “capable of causing loss of life and major damage.”
Irma’s jog to the west caught much of the Gulf Coast by surprise. At midday Saturday, the plywood sheets and metal window shutters so ubiquitous in South Florida were still comparatively rare in St. Petersburg.
As for the Keys, their relationship with hurricanes is intimate and infamous, going back in recorded history at least to the early 17th century.
Over the past 100 years, the islands have been struck by a hurricane an average of one every 4.5 years — most disastrously on Labor Day weekend of 1935, when a nameless storm with 200 mph winds killed as many as 485 people and an entire railroad, the Keys extension of the the Florida East Coast Railway, which was totally wrecked and never rebuilt.
The Keys were already taking punches from Irma on Saturday. Tropical-storm force winds pounded the islands, pushing storm surge ashore. Water levels were up throughout the day, rising nearly a foot above normal in Key West after 4:30 p.m. and more than a foot near Vaca Key.
The toll extended to many other areas of the state. Florida Power & Light reported more than 752,000 customers without electricity Sunday morning. More than 600,000 were located in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Irma has killed more than 20 people and left a wide swath of destruction as it smashed its way through Caribbean resort islands like Saint Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Antigua.
And little is known of the damage Irma did to Cuba, where it lingered much of the day Saturday. It struck the island as a Category 5 storm and moved away as a Category 3. It lashed the island with such fury that the government began moving people into underground military bunkers built decades ago when the Castro regime expected war with the United States.
But not much news has emerged since Irma reached Cuba. The national electric company announced that high winds were forcing it to cut power to Havana, and the Ministry of Communications said it was shutting down all public wi-fi receivers in the capital.
Miami Herald staff writers Glenn Garvin, Kyra Gurney and Curtis Morgan contributed to this report.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich