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People wait in the cafeteria for their named to be called as a Red Cross volunteer (right) gives out room assignments at a shelter within the Pizzo Elementary School in Tampa, Florida. AFP

MIAMI: Hurricane Irma regained strength Sunday as it began pummeling Florida, threatening almost the entire southeastern US state after cutting a deadly path of destruction through the Caribbean.

The storm, packing of winds of 130 mph (210 kph), was upgraded to a Category 4 storm as it closed in on the island chain known as the Florida Keys, the US National Hurricane Center said.

Tens of thousands of Floridians were hunkering down in shelters for a direct hit from the monster storm.

More than 6.3 million – nearly a third of the state’s population – were ordered to evacuate.

For those still at home, it was already too late to escape the wrath of what could be the worst hurricane in storm-prone Florida.

“If you have been ordered to evacuate anywhere in the state, you need to leave right now. Not tonight. Not in an hour. Now. You are running out of time to make a decision,” Governor Rick Scott said hours before wind gusts began to lash the Keys.

Florida Power and Light said more than 170,000 homes and businesses in the state had lost power, as the storm churned about 70 miles (115 kilometers) south-southeast of Key West.

Its eye was expected to cross the Lower Florida Keys within hours before moving “near or along” the peninsular state’s west coast, where it threatened storm surges of up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) – enough to cover a house.

At North Collier Regional Park, a designated shelter just outside the city of Naples, anxious evacuees prayed they and their loved ones would remain safe when the storm made landfall.

“All we wanted to make sure is to feel safe and whatever happens we just have to start I guess from the beginning,” Viviana Sierra said.

MacDill Air Force Base, the military installation home to US Central Command, issued mandatory evacuation orders with the eye of the storm expected to pass near or over its home city of Tampa early Monday. The Kennedy Space Center was also closed.

At least 25 people have been killed since Irma began its devastating march through the Caribbean earlier this week.

Terrified Cubans who rode out Irma in coastal towns – after the storm made landfall Friday as a maximum-strength Category 5 storm on the Camaguey archipelago – reported “deafening” winds, uprooted trees and power lines, and blown rooftops.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, but officials reported “significant damage.” A total of 1.5 million people were evacuated.

Authorities in Havana were evacuating people from low-lying districts at risk from Atlantic storm surges. Enormous waves lashed the Malecon, the capital’s emblematic seafront, causing seawaters to penetrate some 820 feet into the capital, AFP journalists found.

In Florida, cities on both the east and west coasts took on the appearance of ghost towns, as nervous residents heeded insistent evacuation orders.

The storm was expected to move along or near Florida’s southwest Gulf coast by Sunday afternoon.

But Irma is so wide that authorities were bracing for destructive storm surges on both coasts and the Keys.

And hurricane-force winds are expected to lash the peninsula as it rolls north toward Georgia.

A tornado funnel cloud has already formed off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, with the NHC warning that “a few” more were possible in south and central Florida.

On highway 75 along the western coast of Florida, a steady stream of cars pressed northward as thousands fled at the last minute.

Strip malls, fast food restaurants and retail giants were all closed for business.

In Key West, police had opened a “shelter of last resort” for those who had ignored mandatory evacuation orders.

Scott Abraham, who lives on the fifth floor of a beachfront apartment building in Miami Beach, is planning to ignore evacuation orders and ride the storm out with his wife and two kids.

“If I lived in a house I would have left, but if it gets flooded here it’s going to take a week at least to come back. I don’t want that,” he said.

Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew – which killed 65 people in 1992 – Scott, Florida’s governor, said all 20.6 million Floridians should prepare to flee.

Cuban-American Orlando Reyes, 82, was forced to leave his assisted living facility in Miami Beach.

“It is frightening,” he told AFP at a shelter in Miami. “We had to leave without a cent, without taking a bath, or bringing anything.”

The storm smashed through a string of Caribbean islands, beginning with tiny Barbuda on Wednesday, followed by the holiday islands of St Barts and St Martin.

Also affected were the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos. The Bahamas were spared Irma’s worst.

“Houses are smashed, the airport is out of action,” St Barts resident Olivier Toussaint said.

“Upside-down cars are in the cemeteries. Boats are sunk in the marina, shops are destroyed.”

Another powerful storm, Hurricane Jose, had been heading toward the same string of Caribbean islands Irma has pummeled in recent days, but the area received a welcome reprieve when the storm began to gradually weaken and shift course towards the north.

The deteriorating weather had grounded aircraft and prevented boats from bringing relief supplies to hard-hit islands.

The US military was mobilising thousands of troops and deploying several large ships to aid with evacuations and humanitarian relief, as the Air Force removed scores of planes from the southern United States.--AFP

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