REMEDIOS, Cuba (Reuters) – Hurricane Irma pounded Cuba’s northern coast on Saturday and barreled toward Florida as authorities scrambled to complete an unprecedented evacuation of millions of residents hours before the storm would engulf the state.
The outer band of Irma, which has killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean, was already lashing South Florida with tropical storm-force winds and left nearly 25,000 people without power, Governor Rick Scott said.
The brunt of the hurricane, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, is due to arrive in Florida early Sunday.
Irma could inflict major damage on the fourth-largest U.S. state by population, which is braced for winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour and a huge storm surge that could trigger coastal flooding.
“This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it,” Scott said at a Saturday morning news conference.
Irma, located about 225 miles (365 km) south of Miami on Saturday morning, still ranked as a Category 5 storm when it crashed into Cuba in the early hours of Saturday. It weakened to a Category 3 as it tore along the island’s northern coastline, downing power lines, bending palm trees and sending huge waves crashing over sea walls.
Maximum sustained winds dipped to around 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) by 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Saturday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
But Irma will regain strength as it moves over the warm open water as it approaches Florida, according to the NHS, which expects the storm to arrive in the Keys, an archipelago off the peninsula’s southern tip, on Sunday morning.
On Florida’s West Coast, a long line of people in Estero, north of Naples, lined up to enter an arena that officials converted into an evacuation shelter, one of hundreds that have opened up across the state.
“We got the house all buttoned up,” said Montgomery Campbell, 82, as he stood in line.
Luise Campana Read was one of those who chose to ignore warnings and stay in her home. She said by phone she planned to ride out the storm in her beachfront condo in Fort Lauderdale, with her elderly mother and other family members.
“With a 97-year-old, there was no way I was going to have her sleep on a cot or a blow-up mattress” in a shelter, she said.
The destruction along Cuba’s north central coast was similar to that seen on other Caribbean islands over the last week as Irma plowed into Ciego de Avila province around midnight.