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Deadly superstorm Irma has strengthened to a category four hurricane as it approaches the Florida coast.
The hurricane, which has ripped through the Caribbean in a six-day rampage leaving devastation in its wake, is now speeding towards the US coast with wind speeds of 130 mph.
It sent tornadoes and heavy squalls – violent and sudden gusts of winds – across south Florida as tens of thousands of people huddled in shelters awaiting the storm.
At shortly after 7am on Sunday morning UK time, the National Hurricane Centre said Irma was about 70 miles to the south-east of Key West in Florida.
Forecasters said there had been a major shift in the hurricane’s path, meaning St Petersburg further along the coast could get a direct hit.
The edge of the storm has already bent palm trees and lashed heavy rain across the south of the Sunshine State, causing more than 170,000 homes and businesses to lose power.
Authorities told 6.4 million people to evacuate their homes, but on Saturday night (UK time) the Florida governor said it was now “too late” to leave.
Rick Scott issued a stark message to anyone remaining in the path of the storm to “seek shelter and get off the roads”, adding: “People cannot survive this.”
Under the new trajectory forecast, Tampa and Miami may both be spared a head-on blow. But because the storm is 350 to 400 miles wide, the entire Florida peninsula is exposed and the greater Miami area of six million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of four to six feet.
Tens of thousands of people are gathered in shelters watched for updates as the storm swung to the west.
“Tonight, I’m sweating. Tonight I’m scared to death,” said 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud, who sought refuge in a senior center in Florida’s southernmost city with her husband, granddaughter and dog.
Irma – at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic – left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean as it steamed toward the US.
Its winds dropped to Category 3, down considerably from their peak of 185 mph (300 kph) earlier in the week. But as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico’s bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, it regained strength.
Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and the latest projections could shift again, sparing or savaging other parts of the state.
Forecasters warned of storm surge as high as 15 feet (4.5 meters).
Given its mammoth size and strength and its course up the peninsula, it could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida, and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.
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