MIAMI — After carving a path of destruction through the Caribbean and forcing hundreds of thousands in its path to flee in one of the largest evacuations in American history, Hurricane Irma began to batter southern Florida on Saturday and was poised to sweep up its west coast Sunday with deadly force and fury.
The time to gather supplies was over and, in most of the region, it was too late to run. In places like Marathon in the Florida Keys, which was expected to take the full force of the storm, all one could do was brace for impact and hunker down behind hurricane-impact windows, metal storm curtains or hastily constructed plywood barriers.
“The storm is here,” Gov. Rick Scott said at news conference on Saturday, noting that 25,000 people had already lost power.
He said the storm surge could reach 15 feet in places. “Fifteen feet is devastating and will cover your house,” he said. “Do not think the storm is over when the wind slows down. The storm surge will rush in and it could kill you.”
Irma had already shown its might, reducing a string of Caribbean islands nearly to rubble. Now those same islands were bracing for heavy winds associated with Hurricane Jose, upgraded to a Category 4, which was barreling past the Leeward Islands on Saturday.
Hurricane Irma had killed at least 25 people by the time it made landfall in Cuba Friday night as a Category 5. The hurricane was downgraded to Category 3 early Saturday, but was expected to strengthen before its eye made landfall in Florida on Sunday.
Irma plowed directly through the northern coast of Cuba, where there was little word yet of how the area’s hotels and resorts, which generate significant revenue for the state, had fared. Residents in the central provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila awoke Saturday to see whole houses destroyed, roofs ripped off warehouses and downed trees in many places.
Elsewhere, the power had gone out, while the coastal town of Caibarién was under several feet of water. Most people in small coastal communities live in one-story buildings.
Many buildings in Florida, unlike in the Caribbean, are built to withstand powerful hurricanes. But if the projections for the storm hold, more than 3 million people on Florida’s west coast, from Naples up to the sprawling Tampa Bay area, which sits on peninsulas, face storm surges that could inundate whole neighborhoods.
In the days leading up to landfall, the projected path of the storm bounced between the east and west coasts of Florida, but by Saturday the models were converging and pointed to the area between Naples and St. Petersburg as the bull’s eye, forcing officials and residents up and down the Gulf Coast to make new plans.
The storm’s sudden drive to the west prompted last-minute orders for evacuation on Friday and Saturday in Collier County, which includes Naples, leaving little time for residents to pack up their things and find shelter.
“We thought we were safe,” said a Naples police department official who declined to be identified because the official was not authorized to discuss the situation. “We thought we were safe like 36 hours ago.”
The official said that a forecast at 5 p.m. Thursday had caused county officials to spring into action, readying shelters and assisting residents seeking to evacuate.
All along the coast, officials raced to open new shelters on Saturday as others quickly filled up. At least 70 new shelters were to open in Florida on Saturday, adding to the 260 already filling up or full. Mr. Scott asked for volunteers to help at special-needs shelters.
“All available nurses, if you’ll please respond,” he said at the news conference.
Sherrie Webber, 64, and her husband, who live in nearby Pinellas Park, arrived at the school weighed down with the heart medication she has been taking since her open-heart surgery a year ago and a chaise longue for her to sleep on. It was her first time being forced to evacuate in the 46 years she has lived there.
“My husband retires in May,” she said, frustrated by the timing. “We’re moving to Washington State. So I wasn’t exactly expecting this to happen now.”
The storm is so vast, stretching more than 300 miles, and so powerful, with winds reaching 125 miles an hour, that there was really no place in southern Florida that could be considered completely out of danger.
All of the Keys, a thin chain of islands where the eye was expected to make its first landfall, were vulnerable to life-threatening winds, dangerous storm surge, or both. Pine Island, north of Key West, was already seeing rising seas by noon on Saturday, and some canals were spilling over their banks.
“This is the big one, the hurricane we have all feared,” said Roman Gastesi, the county administrator for Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys. “Nobody should be gambling with their lives. If you can leave the Keys, you should go now. Don’t wait.”
When the county’s emergency operations center was forced to flee its Marathon headquarters Saturday, most of the staff went to the Ocean Reef resort in Key Largo, said the county spokeswoman, Cammy Clark.
Once the hurricane moves on, Keys residents who stay could find themselves cut off from the mainland — and from food, gas and other supplies — if any one of their 42 bridges is damaged. All Keys hospitals were closed.
At the Key West Bed and Breakfast, Jody Carlson and the six people on their way to ride out the storm with her could do little more than put their trust in the Bahamian shipbuilders who built her three-story wooden guesthouse at least 120 years ago. Up until Saturday morning, when she checked the 8 a.m. advisory, she had been convinced Key West would be spared.
“I started feeling a little queasy,” said Ms. Carlson, who has lived in Key West for more than 40 years and weathered past hurricanes — though none this strong. “Had I known it was going to change, and not head north, I would have left. But now there are no gas stations open. There are no hotel rooms, I’m sure. I have a dog and a cat. And my cat screams every time he’s with the dog.”
All along Interstate 75, the major north-south artery on the Gulf Coast, workers had lowered the lighting fixtures that normally sit atop high steel poles, so the poles would offer less resistance to the wind and have a better chance of surviving.
About 400 people who live in a community of cabins and tents in a low-lying parcel of land near St. Petersburg, which has a sizable homeless population, had to clear out after a mandatory evacuation order.
In Miami, police have begun to invoke the Baker Act, a state law that allows authorities to institutionalize people if they pose a danger to themselves, to force the city’s homeless into shelters.
The mayors of Miami and the city of Miami Beach issued curfews starting Saturday evening.
Brig. Gen. Ralph Ribas Starke of the Florida National Guard said that more than 7,000 troops were positioned around the state and would be ready to move once the winds died down to tropical storm levels.
Because the storm was so vast, the Coast Guard positioned its response force in New Orleans.
It also declared “Condition Zulu” at the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Manatee ports, forcing the suspension of all activity indefinitely.
With the storm expected to move up the west coast of the state and then to Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, it was difficult to judge how long and how many people might be left on their own.
Officials said people in the direct path of the storm should have two weeks of supplies. But in the days leading up to the storm, there was a run on basic goods, with shelves picked clean of water and many gas stations left with only fumes.
By Saturday night, people had to make do with what they had.
At any time, a storm of this magnitude would have caused deep concern. But as Irma tore through the Caribbean, the images of flattened homes and the harried tales of near death seemed add to the anxiety.
Even as officials were trying to assess the damage to islands like Barbuda, Antigua and St. John, Hurricane Jose, packing winds of over 130 m.p.h., was bearing down on them. It was expected to pass by the region on Saturday before heading north into open ocean, and was not expected to threaten the continental United States.
The storm was set to miss some of Irma’s hardest-hit targets, including Antigua and Barbuda, though the authorities in Barbuda were evacuating its population of 1,600 to its sister island, Antigua.
But St. Martin and St. Barthélemy, still reeling from Irma, remained in Jose’s sights. On St. Martin, Dutch Marines flying over the island in helicopters dropped fliers warning inhabitants to head to shelters.
In Florida the demand for shelters, and the closing of a number of hotels on short notice, added to some initial chaos in getting people where they needed to go. Mayor Carlos Giminez of Miami-Dade County acknowledged the confusion late Friday night, but promised that people would be safe and fed.
In Miami-Dade alone, there were more than 23,000 people in shelters.
For many, that meant spending several terrifying days in a strange place with strangers, although in some shelters, like the one at Highland Oaks Middle School, people could at least bring their pets.
As the storm approached, the halls echoed with the barking of dogs and the shouted instructions of harried officials. They would all rather have been somewhere else.
But: “There was not even a choice in the matter,” said Edwin Geliga, 35, who was ordered to evacuate his trailer park in North Miami Beach. “My trailer is a very weak structure. I know deep in my heart that it would collapse.”