MIAMI (AP) — Irma hurtled toward Florida with 130 mph winds Saturday on a shifting course that threatened the first direct hit on the Tampa area from a major hurricane in nearly a century.
Forecasters predicted Irma’s center would blow ashore today and strike the Florida Keys, then hit southwestern Florida, move up the state’s Gulf Coast and plow into the Tampa Bay area.
The storm center is expected to miss the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — which for days had been expecting to get hit head-on — but it will still be pounded with life-threatening hurricane winds, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
The Tampa Bay area has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921.
On Saturday morning, the hurricane’s outer bands blew into South Florida as residents scrambled to leave. Damaging winds were moving into areas including Key Biscayne and Coral Gables, and gusts up to 56 mph (90 kph) were reported off Miami.
Irma was expected to pick up strength again as it closed in on Florida.
In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the U.S., about 5.6 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state’s population — were told to leave, and 540,000 were ordered to clear out from the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.
Gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars drove in the southbound lanes.