- 6.3m people ordered to evacuate
Abimbola Akosile and Demola Ojo with agency report
Florida’s state governor, Rick Scott, has told residents who were ordered to leave their homes to go to shelters and avoid the roads as Hurricane Irma approaches. The governor said it was now too late to drive away from the danger areas.
After devastating several Caribbean islands, Irma is lashing Cuba with strong winds and heavy rain, and is due to reach Florida on Sunday.
Some 6.3 million people, more than 25 per cent of the US state’s population, have been ordered to evacuate, the BBC has reported.
The hurricane made landfall on the Sabana-Camaguey Archipelago, in Cuba’s north-east, late on Friday as a category five storm but has now weakened to a category three.
After moving slowly along the northern Cuban coast it is now heading out to sea towards Florida.
Irma is expected to strengthen once it moves away from Cuba, and will remain a powerful hurricane as it approaches Florida, the National Hurricane Center says in its latest advisory at 00:00 GMT.
It says Irma has maximum sustained winds of 120mph (193km/h). It was the first category five hurricane to hit Cuba in more than 80 years, and it is expected to strengthen again before reaching Florida.
At least 24 people are so far known to have died as Hurricane Irma progressed across the Caribbean throughout the week.
Irma is expected to hit the coast at around lunchtime on Sunday, but the outer bands are already affecting the south of the state and central Miami is being lashed by heavy rain.
The Florida Keys – a chain of small islands to the south – have suffered some minor damage and are expected to bear the brunt of the storm on Sunday morning.
The head of emergencies agency Fema, Brock Long, told CNN there were “no safe areas within the Keys”. “You put your life in your own hands by not evacuating,” he added.
“If you’re in an evacuation zone, you’ve got to get to a shelter need to get to a shelter… there’s not many hours left”, Gov Scott warned residents.
“The winds are coming, there is not gonna be a lot of time now to be able to drive very far.”
Thousands of people on the mainland are currently without electricity, energy provider Florida Power and Light reported.
The western Gulf coast is expected to be worst affected, with cities such as Tampa and St Petersburg in the path of the storm.
The Tampa Bay area, with a population of about three million, has not been hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
And there are fears that storm surges combined with high tide on Monday could overwhelm some low-lying areas.
Gov Scott said that storm surges in coastal areas could be as high as 15ft (4.6m), adding that people “cannot survive this”.
Some 50,000 people have gone to shelters throughout the state, the governor said. Media reports say shelters in some areas have been filling up quickly and some people have been turned away.
Miami city and Broward county have imposed curfews to help clear the roads of traffic.