The winds of Hurricane Irma began to be felt in the Florida Keys and the Sunshine State’s mainland Saturday afternoon, as forecasters predicted the center of the storm would strike the Keys, southwestern Florida and the Tampa Bay region starting Sunday.

Irma had been downgraded to a Category 3 storm as it raked the coast of Cuba Saturday morning, but it was expected to get its strength back over the ultra-toasty Florida Straits and hit the peninsula as a dangerous Category 4 storm.


“You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the evacuation zones ahead of the storm’s predicted arrival.

As of 4 p.m. Saturday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) placed Irma about 145 miles southeast of Key West with winds up to 125 miles per hour. The center said the storm was moving west at nine miles per hour and warned that “Major hurricane force winds [were] expected over the Florida Keys at daybreak.”

Nearly 30,000 people had lost power, mostly in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as the wind began gusting.

Hurricane Irma Approaching Florida

Irma was expected to hit the lower Florida Keys on Sunday morning, the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon and the Tampa region on Sunday night into Monday morning, according to NHC meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen.


Irma was expected to hit the lower Florida Keys on Sunday morning, the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon and the Tampa region on Sunday night into Monday morning, according to NHC meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen.

The latest forecasts have spared the Miami area from getting the core of the storm, but Feltgen warned South Floridians could still see 20 inches of rain [and] storm surge.”

“We’re going to have a hurricane here [in Miami],” said Feltgen, who added that he worries people will misinterpret the forecast track change that puts Miami out of the predicted area for Irma’s eye.

The westward swing in the hurricane’s projected path overnight caught many on Florida’s Gulf coast off guard. By late morning, few businesses in St. Petersburg and its barrier islands had put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals groused about the change in the forecast. The hurricane center forecasts 8 to 12 feet of storm surge in extreme southwestern Florida, an area that includes Naples. Experts say the area from Venice to Captiva Island will get about 5 to 8 feet with the Tampa Bay region getting about 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) further north. Southeast Florida up to Boca Raton can expect 5 to 10 feet of storm surge, with areas further north on the east coast of Florida forecast to get 2 to 4 feet of storm surge. High wind, tornadoes and heavy rainfall of up to 20 inches are forecast for most of Florida.