ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Irma’s leading edge brought hurricane-force winds to the Florida Keys late Saturday, bending palm trees and spitting rain as the storm swirled north with over 100 mph winds on a projected new track that could expose St. Petersburg — not Miami or even Tampa — to a direct hit.
The hurricane’s leading edge was already lashing the Florida Keys with hurricane force winds. If the center of the storm keeps moving over warm Gulf of Mexico water, it may regain more strength before making landfall again.
St. Petersburg, like Tampa, has not taken a head-on blow from a major hurricane in nearly a century. Clearwater would be next, and then the storm would finally go inland northwest of Ocala.
The storm had top sustained winds of 120 mph (193 kph) and was moving northward at about 6 mph (10 kph).
More than 170,000 homes and businesses in Florida had lost power and the center of Irma was about 90 miles (145 km) southeast of Key West.
Florida Power and Light said on its website that more than half of those outages were in the Miami-Dade area, where about 600,000 people have been ordered to evacuate.
The company has said it expects millions of people to lose power, with some areas experiences prolonged outages.
The company said it has assembled the largest pre-storm workforce in US history, with more than 16,000 people ready to respond.
The National Hurricane Center’s latest tweak to Irma’s forecasted track had the storm hugging the Florida’s west coast off Fort Myers, but possibly not making landfall there before moving back to the Gulf of Mexico. By moving the likely track a few crucial miles west, the storm would be able to regain strength over water before its deadliest winds hit St. Petersburg and Clearwater, rather than the more populated Tampa.
After that, the storm was expected to skirt the coast again a bit north of Horseshoe Beach, then finally go inland around Fish Creek, northwest of Ocala, with a hurricane-force wind field well over 100 miles (160 km) wide.
Irma’s forward motion slowed to 6 mph (10 kph) as the storm stuttered off the coast of Cuba.
Forecasters said it could still increase in strength, but their forecast didn’t show it.
An estimated 70,000 Floridians huddled in shelters as Irma closed in on the Keys, where the storm’s center was expected to swirl over land Sunday morning.
“This is your last chance to make a good decision,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in Florida’s evacuation zones, which encompassed a staggering 6.4 million people, or more than 1 in 4 people in the state.
Earlier in the day, Irma executed a westward swing toward Florida’s Gulf coast that appeared to spare the Miami metropolitan area of the catastrophic direct hit that forecasters had been warning of for days.
Still, Miami was not out of danger. Because the storm’s damaging winds stretch 350 to 400 miles (560-640 km) wide, forecasters said the metro area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening gusts and a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet.
Irma — at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic — left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean as it steamed toward the US.