Florida's Gulf Coast braces for Irma; tornado watches issued in 9 counties

By Daniel Uria and Doug G. Ware  |  Sept. 9, 2017 at 5:54 PM
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Sept. 9 (UPI) -- As Hurricane Irma looms to the south, millions of Florida residents are bracing for the Category 3 storm to run up along the Gulf Coast when it arrives Sunday.

Conditions from Irma -- 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.

After tracking west over the last 24 hours, Irma stalled a bit near the Cuban coast Saturday. Forecasters said it's possible Irma could regain some strength is it crosses the warm waters in the Florida Straits by early Sunday, and make land in Florida as a Category 4 storm.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned at a news conference Saturday from the Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center of severe impact from the "catastrophic and life-threatening" hurricane.

"The storm's here," he said, adding that Irma had already brought tropical storm force winds and left nearly 25,000 people without power as it began to batter the Florida Keys.

Evacuations were ordered for several areas in South Florida and the Florida Keys this week. FEMA Administrator Brock Long said Saturday everyone in the southern island chain should have gotten out by now.

"The message has been clear -- the Keys are going to be impacted, there is no safe area within the Keys, and you put your life in your own hands by not evacuating," he told CNN. "You're on your own until we can actually get in there."

"Immediate concern right now is anyone in the Florida Keys," hurricane specialist Mike Brennan said. "Your life may be at risk."

Scott warned of deadly storm surges of 6 to 12 feet above ground level along the east and west coasts of Florida.

For the moment, it appears that the heavily populated cities in the Miami metro area -- Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach -- have dodged the bullet of a direct hit, which is what had fueled forecasters' main concerns for most of the past week. Forecasters, though, maintain that dangerous conditions still may be present on the east coastline -- including some storm surge and heavy rain bands.

Scott said residents in evacuation zones in southwest Florida should be on the road out of the state by noon, or find the nearest shelter.

"If you don't need to be on the road get off and go to a shelter," he said.

"This is a major storm surge threat, a major wind threat for a large portion of Southwest Florida," National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Mark DeMaria said.

Saturday, the National Weather Service issued tornado watches lasting through Saturday night for nine counties in Florida -- Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee and mainland Monroe.

Tornadoes are a common byproduct of severe hurricane conditions.

Most residents who intend to evacuate have already done so. Some attempted to leave the state and flee north before Irma makes its trip up Florida.

Officials and forecasters reiterated Saturday that large storm surges along Florida's west coast could cause major flooding.

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