(CNN) — Hurricane Irma’s strong winds and outer rain bands lashed the Florida Keys on Saturday as the Category 3 storm pushed toward the state amid dire warnings of devastating gales, heavy rain and a potentially deadly storm surge.
With sustained winds at 125 mph, Irma slowly began turning from Cuba’s northern coast up into the Florida Strait on Saturday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm is expected to strengthen again and remain a powerful hurricane when it reaches Florida.
Irma’s eye was due to strike part of the Florida Keys on Sunday morning before driving up the state’s southwestern coast Sunday afternoon, according to the hurricane center.
As much as 20 inches of rain was predicted through Wednesday across the Florida peninsula and southeast Georgia, and maximum wind gusts above 100 mph are expected in much of western Florida.
But the major concern among officials was the storm surge, which is like a sustained high tide that can cause devastating flooding. A storm surge warning is in place for the Florida Keys, Tampa Bay, and an extensive stretch of coastline wrapping most of the way around the state.
Florida’s southwest coast from Cape Sable to Captiva could see “catastrophic” storm surge flooding of 10 to 15 feet, the hurricane center said, while the area around Tampa Bay could see five to eight feet of storm surge.
“This will be a devastating storm for central Florida, Tampa, Fort Myers, Naples (and) all the way down to Key West,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Saturday afternoon.
By noon Saturday, it was too late for residents to leave specified evacuation zones in southwestern Florida, Gov. Rick Scott had said hours earlier.
“The storm is here,” he said. “This is a deadly storm, and our state has never seen anything like it.”
An estimated 6.3 million residents have been ordered to evacuate, the Florida Division of Emergency Management said. The mass evacuations have sent throngs onto jammed highways heading north and created a severe gas shortage in some parts the state.
Irma hit Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province late Friday as a Category 5 hurricane. The storm’s violent gusts destroyed the instrument used to measure wind strength, Cuba’s meteorological agency reported. Waves as high as 23 feet were recorded, and bigger ones remained a possibility as Irma plodded west, officials said.
Even before hitting Cuba, Irma had proven catastrophic, killing 24 people this week in the Caribbean and leaving entire islands in ruins.
Here are the latest developments:
— Irma’s center was 115 miles southeast of Key West at 5 p.m. ET Saturday and moving west-northwest at a relatively slow 9 mph.
— Hurricane warnings were extended north along Florida’s west coast as far as Perry, and along the eastern coast to include Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville. A storm surge warning wraps around the state, from Brevard County to Tampa Bay.
— More than 54,000 people are in more than 320 shelters across the state, the governor’s office said
— President Donald Trump tweeted links for Florida residents looking for information.
— As Irma barrels toward Florida, as many as 26 million people in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba could be exposed to destructive winds and torrential rain, the Red Cross said, with 1.2 million people already battered by the storm. Hurricane warnings were still in effect Saturday for parts of central Cuba.
— Hurricane warnings remained in place Saturday in parts of the Bahamas. A storm surge as high as 20 feet — well above the islands’ elevation — were possible, Myers said. About 390,000 people live in the nation of islands.
— Of the 24 deaths blamed on Irma, nine were in unspecified French territories, one in Barbuda, one in the British overseas territory of Anguilla, two in Dutch-administered St. Maarten, four in the British Virgin Islands, four in the US Virgin Islands and three in Puerto Rico.
— Irma brought heavy rain and powerful winds to the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands. The capital island of Grand Turk suffered “quite a bit of damage,” including to part of a hospital’s roof, Gov. John Freeman told CNN.
Nervous Florida waits
Irma shifted slightly west overnight, putting Florida cities such as Naples and Tampa in the direct path of the storm’s eye.
“It’s not a question of whether Florida is going to be impacted — it’s a question of how bad Florida is going to be impacted,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Friday.
And though the hurricane’s core has the most power, Irma is huge. Winds of at least tropical-storm force covered 70,000 square miles — larger than Florida’s entire land area.
Miami began feeling some of Irma’s winds Saturday, with high-rise construction cranes sent spinning in circles.
Officials in other states also were preparing Saturday for Irma. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation for some barrier islands, while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded the state of emergency to include 94 counties.
FEMA warned Alabama and North Carolina also to be on watch.
As Caribbean islands pummeled by Irma assessed damage — including shredded buildings, battered cars and submerged streets — hard-hit Barbuda and St. Martin wearily prepared for Hurricane Jose, which could affect those places this weekend.
Barbuda, one of two major islands in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, was barely habitable for its 1,800 residents after Irma, with about 95% of its buildings damaged, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Martin/St. Maarten and St. Barts were under a tropical storm warning for Jose, which was passing north of those islands Saturday.