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Hurricane latest: Irma downgraded to Category 3 hurricane, but forecasters say it remains 'powerful'

One person has died, bringing the total number killed across the Caribbean and the US to 23

Updated 7.45pm

storm Hurricane Irma has now reached Florida. Source: Earth Wind Map

HURRICANE IRMA HAS been downgraded to a Category 3 storm, but forecasters warned that it remains “powerful”.

Maximum sustained winds were at 195 kilometers per hour, with higher gusts, the National Hurricane Centre said, as the storm slowly approached mainland Florida.

The hurricane battered the Florida Keys island chain early Sunday.

“While weakening is forecast, Irma is expected to remain a powerful hurricane while it moves near or along the west cost of Florida,” the centre said.

Residents have shrouded in shelters watching for updates as Hurricane Irma moves along the Florida coast.

Three people in Florida, including a sheriff’s deputy, have been killed in car crashes as Hurricane Irma closed in with high winds and lashing rain.

Deputy Julie Bridges, 42, died in a head-on collision in Hardee County, east of Sarasota.

“She had been working in a shelter all night, and ran home to get some supplies,” when the crash occurred earlier in the morning.

The roads were “wet and windy,” Sheriff Arnold Lanier told AFP, noting that Bridges was the mother of a young son and had worked for the sheriff’s department for 13 years.

The other driver, a corrections officer on his way to work in a private vehicle, was also killed, Lanier said.

The third fatality was a man who died near Key West when his truck slammed into a tree, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

It is reported he lost control of a truck he has driving that carried a generator, ABC News reported, quoting local police. 

abc A reporter on ABC describes the extent of the storm, as it reaches the Keys.

As of 8am EDT (1pm Irish times) the hurricane was centred about 30 kilometres east-southeast of Key West, Florida, and was moving north-northwest at 13 km/h.

The Key West International Airport measured sustained winds of 80 km/h with a gust of up to 113 km/h).

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for a wide swath of Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida.

The band of rain and tornado producing cells was moving quickly, officials said. There were no immediate reports of tornadoes touching down.

Don’t go outside 

The leading edge of the immense storm bent palm trees and spit rain across South Florida, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, as the eye approached Key West.

As the hurricane’s eye approached the Florida Keys early today, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud and her family were huddled in a third floor apartment at a senior centre in Key West.

“We are good so far,” she said in a text message. “It’s blowing hard.”

Stroud was with her husband, Tim Stroud, and granddaughter, Sierra Costello. Their dog Rocky was also riding out the storm.

Stroud said she planned to step outside once the eye of the hurricane passed over. She said she has stood in the eye of a hurricane before and it’s “total peace and quiet.”

However, Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to “resist the urge” to go outside during the eye.

“Dangerous winds will follow quickly,” police said in a Facebook post.

Florida Governor Rick Scott had warned residents in the state’s evacuation zones yesterday that “this is your last chance to make a good decision”. About 6.4 million people were told to flee.

But because the storm is 350 to 400 miles wide, the entire Florida peninsula is exposed.

Forecasters said the greater Miami area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of 4 to 6 feet.

Hurricane Irma Florida Waves crash against the Southernmost Point in Key West. Source: ROB-ONEAL

Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic with a peak wind speed of 300 km/h last week.

The storm ripped roofs off houses and flooded hundreds of kilometres of coastline as it raked Cuba’s northern coast yesterday, after devastating islands the length of the Caribbean in a trail of destruction.

As Irma left Cuba late yesterday, authorities on the island were assessing the damage and warning of staggering damage to keys off the northern coast studded with all-inclusive resorts and cities, as well as farmland in central Cuba.

There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba – a country that prides itself on its disaster preparedness – but authorities were trying to restore power, clear roads and warning that people should stay off the streets of Havana because flooding could continue into Monday.

Residents of “the capital should know that the flooding is going to last more than 36 hours, in other words, it is going to persist,” Civil Defence Col Luis Angel Macareno said, adding that the waters had reach at about 600 metres into Havana.

As Irma rolled in, Cuban soldiers went through coastal towns to force residents to evacuate, taking people to shelters at government buildings and schools — and even caves.

Cuba Hurricane Irma Strong waves brought by Hurricane Irma hit the Malecon seawall in Havana yesterday. Source: Ramon Espinosa

Video images from northern and eastern Cuba showed uprooted utility poles and signs, many downed trees and extensive damage to roofs.

Witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins. And authorities in the city of Santa Clara said 39 buildings collapsed.

More than 5,000 tourists were evacuated from the keys off Cuba’s north-central coast, where the government has built dozens of resorts in recent years.

- Reporting from Associated Press, additional reporting Daragh Brophy 

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Associated Press

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