The outer bands of Hurricane Irma, weakened by a blow to Cuba but still life-threatening, reached the Florida Keys late Saturday, with heavy squalls embedded with tornadoes sweeping the southern part of the state, as fears of devastation shifted from metropolitan Miami to another vulnerable population center around Tampa Bay.
Local, state and federal officials have called on residents and visitors to evacuate Miami Beach and other Atlantic Coast resorts for days, but as Tampa found itself in Irma’s cross hairs, many on Florida’s Gulf Coast were caught off guard.
“For five days, we were told it was going to be on the East Coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we’re now told it’s coming up the West Coast,” said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. “As usual, the weatherman — I don’t know why they’re paid.”
The hurricane’s core was expected to hit the Keys by Sunday morning and Tampa by Sunday night. But forecasters warned that the entire Florida peninsula faces life-threatening hurricane-force winds and storm surge.
The late westward shift in Irma’s track caused one last moment of panic for those Floridians who have watched with concern as Irma killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean and left thousands more homeless.
Penny Murray, who made a last-minute decision to flee Fort Lauderdale for a friend’s home on the Gulf Coast in Sarasota, became a “nervous wreck” Saturday when she realized she might have moved from the frying pan into the fire.
“Oh my God, I’m crying. I can’t stop crying,” the 69-year-old said. “We come all the way up here to be safe, and now it’s going to hit us even worse.”
At 9 p.m., the National Hurricane Center reported wind gusts near hurricane force, up to 66 mph, as the outer edge of Irma began sweeping the Florida Keys.
It had weakened to a Category 3 storm, down from the Category 5 status it held last week for a modern record of three days as it ravaged the Leeward Islands. But it was expected to strengthen back to Category 4 on Sunday as it passes over 86-degree waters between Cuba and Florida.
Meteorologists are expecting the storm to hit the United States as many as three times, with blows to the lower Keys and on the Gulf Coast near Fort Myers or Cape Coral. After passing over the Tampa-St. Petersburg region, Irma’s core could go back into the Gulf of Mexico briefly before hitting closer to the Florida panhandle.
Tampa has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now the area is home to around 3 million people.
“Irma is expected to make landfall in Florida as an extremely dangerous major hurricane, bringing life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center,” the National Hurricane Center said.
With the window for escape closing fast, Gov. Rick Scott gave a frank warning Saturday morning to those in the evacuation zones: “You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” he said.
For many on the Gulf Coast, it was too late for that. A 7,500-bed shelter at the Germain Arena on the Gulf Coast near Naples quickly drew thousands seeking refuge. The line to enter snaked up and down the parking lot, and it appeared there might be more people than beds. Other shelters were filling up fast, leaving officials scrambling to ready new locations.
Elderly residents who managed to escape other storms found themselves unable to leave town. The only interstate leading out of harm’s way was jammed with evacuees. Local officials advised those who were left to seek refuge at local shelters. Those who heard from friends who managed to pack up their cars and hit the highway repeated stories of 13-hour drives just to get to the state line.
Ann Johnson, 82, sat with her husband and another couple under the fluorescent lights of the Palmetto Ridge High School cafeteria.
“This is the first time we have come to a shelter,” she said. “Usually we just pack up and go. We looked at the timing of this and realized there was nowhere to go. This is as safe a place as any.”
Johnson had slept across three stiff plastic chairs the night before. There weren’t enough cots for everyone. Only the infirm were given beds.
Pat and Dennis Boyle, another elderly couple, had been tracking the storm closely and thought they would be safe in their inland home. They, too, ended up at the shelter.
“We couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Dennis Boyle, 87. “The problem with trying to leave is you can get on the interstate and run out of gas. All the gas stations are closed. What do you do then?”
On Saturday, the state was already beginning to feel Irma’s muscle. Nearly 80,000 people lost power by 6 p.m. in Southeast Florida as the wind began gusting. A 70-mph gust was reported at the Fort Lauderdale airport, and tornado warnings were issued in Broward County and in the lower Keys.
In Key West, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud sought refuge in a senior center with her husband, granddaughter and dog. The streets were nearly empty, shops were boarded up and the wind started to blow.
“Tonight, I’m sweating,” she said. “Tonight, I’m scared to death.”
On CNN, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long told residents of the Keys who chose not to evacuate: "You're on your own until we can actually get in there, and it's safe for our teams to support local and state efforts. 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."
In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the United States, about 6.3 million people in Florida — more than a quarter of the state’s population — were warned to leave, and 540,000 were directed to clear out from the Georgia coast.
Gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations. Stretches of Interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper.
Major tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, all closed Saturday. The Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports shut down, and those in Orlando and Tampa planned to do the same later in the day.
Ray Scarborough and girlfriend Leah Etmanczyk left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north with her parents and three big dogs to stay with relatives in Orlando. Scarborough was 12 when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and remembers lying on the floor in a hall as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house.
“They said this one is going to be bigger than Andrew. When they told me that, that’s all I needed to hear,” said Scarborough, now a 37-year-old boat captain. “That one tore everything apart.”
Some South Florida residents who fled Irma’s expected wrath on the East Coast were relieved when the storm appeared to shift its track.
When Chandra Dio, 39, packed up and headed to Naples Friday morning with her 19-year-old niece and two cats, she thought she was headed for another “hurrication” — like last year when she fled the threat of Hurricane Matthew.
Instead, Dio found herself facing the possibility of a direct hit. Within 24 hours she was on the road again, headed back to the Broward County suburb of Plantation.
“I kind of laughed, but my niece was terrified and crying,” Dio said. “I went through a pack of cigarettes this morning and a pot of coffee … everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, like Murphy’s Law, but what are you going to do?
Officials in Broward, north of Miami, opened extra shelters Friday to meet demand. On Saturday, dozens of residents left to return home.
Feltgen, the hurricane center meteorologist, said the East Coast of Florida is still in danger, and feared that some were misinterpreting forecasts that shifted Irma’s eye toward Tampa.
While Irma’s core likely won’t hit southeast Florida, he said, “that doesn’t mean we won’t have 20 inches of rain, storm surge. We’re going to have a hurricane here.”
That includes high winds — just not as high as what the West Coast of the state will experience.
Word began to come from Cuba of severe damage. High winds from Irma upended trees, toppled utility poles and scattered debris across streets. Roads were blocked, and witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was reduced to ruins by squalls.
Cuba's meteorological agency reported that Irma came ashore overnight in central Camaguey province, home to the country’s third-largest city, with winds so strong that they destroyed measurement instruments.
“No one wants to leave the house, only silence is interrupted by gusts of wind and rain,” Yoani Sanchez, who runs a Havana-based digital news service, 14ymedio, tweeted about the situation in Camaguey.
In a week that saw three hurricanes churning in the Atlantic basin, Irma was the only immediate threat remaining Saturday night. The islands of St. Martin, St. Barts, Anguilla and Barbuda, already ravaged by Irma, avoided a direct hit from Hurricane Jose, which moved off to the north. Hurricane Katia disintegrated over eastern Mexico on Saturday.
The Los Angeles Times, The Sun-Sentinel of South Florida and the Associated Press contributed to this article.