Hurricane Irma's leading edges whipped palm trees and kicked up the surf as the storm spun toward Florida with 120 mph winds Saturday on a projected new track that could put Tampa — not Miami — in the crosshairs.
Tampa has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane in nearly a century.
As Irma's hurricane-force winds started to whip the Florida Keys late Saturday, the storm stayed at a weakened 120 mph and took slow aim at Florida.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm's forward motion fell to 6 mph as the storm stuttered off the coast of Cuba. Forecasters say it could still increase in strength, but their forecast didn't show it.
The hurricane-force wind field stretched well over 100 miles. Forecasters say they are moving the forecast track slight west again.
The National Weather Service said a wind gust of 74 mph, the first hurricane-force wind gust, was recorded at the Smith Shoal Light station in the Florida Keys on Saturday night.
The window was closing fast for anyone wanting to escape before the expected arrival of the fearsome storm in the Keys Sunday morning. Irma — at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic — left more than 20 people dead in its wake across the Caribbean.
"You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now," 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.
For days, the forecast had made it look as if the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people on Florida's Atlantic coast could get hit head-on with the catastrophic and long-dreaded Big One.
But that soon changed. Meteorologists predicted Irma's center would blow ashore Sunday morning in the perilously low-lying Florida Keys, then hit southwestern Florida and move north during the day, plowing into the Tampa Bay area by Monday morning.
Tampa has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now the area has around 3 million people.
The new course threatened everything from Tampa Bay's bustling twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg to Naples' mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center's retirement homes, and Sanibel Island's shell-filled beaches.
By late morning Saturday, however, few businesses in St. Petersburg and its barrier islands had put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals grumbled about the change in the forecast.
"For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we're now told it's coming up the west coast," said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. "As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid."
Forecasters warned of storm surge as high as 15 feet along a swath of southwest Florida and beyond.
"This is going to sneak up on people," said Jamie Rhome, head of the hurricane center's storm surge unit.
The City of Tampa issued a warning Saturday afternoon that said potential surge increased to 6-9 feet in coastal and low-lying areas.
Pinellas County's Office of Emergency Management say the worst part of Irma will be on the back end of the storm, expected between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday.
Tampa Electric announced Saturday afternoon that it's preparing for extensive power outages that could affect 300,000 to 500,000 customers - or 45 to 70 percent of the entire system.
The utility is requesting an additional 4,500 line and tree workers to help rebuild the system and restore power after the storm passes through. More than 1,300 workers from other utilities from as far away as the Midwest and Northeast are traveling to Florida to assist with the operation. That gives them a total of about 6,000 workers in the field in addition to its regular crews.
Tampa Electric may be forced to shut down some equipment ahead of Irma's expected high winds and potential storm surge. Company officials say if sustained winds reach 100 mph, they may shut down power some plant units early, and if storm surge and saltwater threatens substations, those may also be shut down ahead of the storm. They say substations in downtown Tampa and Harbor and Davis Islands are most likely to be affected.
More than 170,000 homes and businesses in Florida have already lost power, with Florida Power and Light saying 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 U.S. history, with more than 16,000 people ready to respond.
Officials in Pinellas, Hernando, Sarasota, Hillsborough and Manatee counties and the city of Tampa ordered mandatory evacuations of all residents who live in Zone A. That includes low-lying and coastal areas that are vulnerable to storm surge. It also applies to residents with special needs and people who live in mobile homes.
Hernando and Pinellas also included residents who live in Zone B in the mandatory evacuation orders as of Saturday morning. Manatee County issued a voluntary evacuation for Zone B.
Entry to the Pinellas County barrier islands will shut down for everyone, including residents and business owners, as of 6 a.m. Sunday morning. Access has been restricted to people who don’t live or have business there since Friday morning. The barrier islands have already been under a mandatory evacuation order since Friday morning.
Pinellas County had opened 17 shelters as of Saturday 9 a.m. An estimated 260,000 residents are affected by the order.
As of 9 p.m., almost 16,000 people are in the shelters, with John Sexton Elementary School in St. Petersburg being the only one at capacity.
There are now 350 pets in three pet-friendly shelters, but the other county shelters will not turn away people with pets, according to officials with Pinellas County's Emergency Management Office.
Hillsborough County officials said more than 17,000 people had taken refuge in 45 shelters, with 16 of them at capacity.
Polk County has issued a mandatory evacuation for residents in mobile homes, manufactured homes, and those in flood-prone areas.
Pasco County has issued a mandatory evacuation for residents who live west of U.S. 19, special needs residents, anyone who lives in a manufactured home, mobile home, or RV, and anyone who lives in an area prone to flooding.
All of New Port Richey is under a mandatory evacuation order as of Saturday morning.
Pasco opened 25 shelters for residents, and two - Wesley Chapel High School and Mike Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter - are currently full. As of 7 p.m., 10,000 people are in Pasco shelters.
In Sarasota County, a local state of emergency was issued and mandatory evacuations for Zone A began. Residents had until 8 p.m. Saturday. Ten shelters in the county are currently open, but two are at capacity so far.
Residents in Manatee County also had until 8 p.m. Saturday to evacuate. So far five of the county’s 25 shelters are at capacity.
When counties mandate evacuations, they will do it by zones A through E. Evacuation zones are not the same as FEMA flood zone designations.
You can find a list of shelters for Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee Counties here.
In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the U.S., about 6.3 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state's population — were warned to leave, and 540,000 were directed to clear out from the Georgia coast.
On Saturday morning, the state was already beginning to feel Irma's effects. Nearly 45,000 people had lost power, mostly in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as the wind began gusting.
At least 54,000 people crowded 320 shelters across Florida.
In Key West, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud sought refuge in a senior center with her husband, granddaughter and dog. The streets were nearly empty, shops were boarded up and the wind started to blow.
"Tonight, I'm sweating," she said. "Tonight, I'm scared to death."
At Germain Arena not far from Fort Myers, on Florida's southwestern corner, thousands waited in a snaking line for hours to gain a spot in the hockey venue-turned-shelter.
"We'll never get in," Jamilla Bartley lamented as she stood in the parking lot.
The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
Major tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, all prepared to close Saturday. The Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports shut down, and those in Orlando and Tampa planned to do the same later in the day.
Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, it could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
Hurricane Andrew razed Miami's suburbs in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.
Boat captain Ray Scarborough and his girlfriend left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north to stay with relatives in Orlando. Scarborough was 12 when Andrew hit and remembers lying on the floor in a hall as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house.
"They said this one is going to be bigger than Andrew. When they told me that," he said, "that's all I needed to hear."