IN PHOTOS: The destructive path of Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean UPDATED
Hurricane Irma's intensity dropped slightly on Saturday while it raked Cuba after making landfall as a Category 5 storm with 160 mph winds, but is expected to strengthen again as it approaches Florida where more than one million people are estimated to have evacuated in its path. It was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Cuba in more than 80 years.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Saturday evening that Irma remained a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph). The storm's center was about 110 miles southeast of Key West, Florida.
After it leaves Cuba, Irma is forecast to pick up intensity again over the warm water of the Florida Straits reaching 140 mph, almost restoring it to Category 4 status.
Irma is a massive storm dwarfing the state's largest storm in recent times, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which destroyed 127,000 homes in South Florida, killing 44 people. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles (110 km) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles (315 km).
Nearly 6 million Floridians — a quarter of the state's population — were told to evacuate.
Forecasters predict Irma will cause 8 to 12 ft storm surge in South Florida as far north as Tampa Bay, one of the state's most low lying, flood-prone regions. Adding to that, it will also produce 8 to 15 inches of heavy rain, with isolated amounts of 20 inches are expected over the Florida Keys.
"Hurricane Warnings were extended up both sides of the Florida peninsula late Friday ... a remarkable swath that included the entire coastline of the peninsula, plus about half of the Florida Panhandle coast, including Tallahassee and Apalachicola," said Weather Underground meteorologist Bob Henson, who described Ira's projected track as a “peninsula runner.”
Irma's outer bands were already arriving in South Florida, after causing 20 deaths in the Caribbean. The National Weather Service reported damaging winds moving into areas of South Florida including Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and South Miami. Gusts of up to 56 mph (90 kph) were reported on Virginia Key off Miami as the storm's outer bands arrived.
Among those forced to evacuate was Florida Governor Rick Scott who announced his family had left their $15 million beachside mansion in Naples.
In Cuba, the storm pounded Havana's famous Malecon seafront azs well as the tourism resorts that stretch along the coast of Villa Clara province to Varadero, Cuba’s most famous beach. Hotels on Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, popular with Canadian and European tourists, sustained serious damage, Reuters reported.
In the nearby town of Caibarien, Cuban TV reported major flooding, downed tress as well as telephone and electricity poles. Power was cut to several towns region.
French territories badly hit
France's public insurance agency estimates that Hurricane Irma inflicted 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion) in damage on infrastructure in the French overseas islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.
It added that Hurricane Irma is "one of the biggest natural catastrophes to have occurred in France in 35 years."
In the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose is a Category 4 hurricane, about 190 miles (306 kilometers) east-southeast of The Northern Leeward Islands, moving toward the islands at 13 mph (20.92 kph) with winds reaching 150 mph.
In the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katia made landfall late Friday north of Tecolutla, Mexico and weakened to a tropical storm, with winds reaching 45 mph (72.4 kph).