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Hurricane Irma begins assault on Florida Keys

The winds from Hurricane Irma blow palm trees as it approaches Naples, Fla., Sunday. (AP Photo/David Goldman).

HURRICANE Irma began its assault on Florida on Sunday, with the storm's northern eyewall reaching the lower Florida Keys as a powerful category four storm.

Irma lashed the area with maximum sustained winds near 130 mph and the US National Hurricane Centre said it was expected to remain a powerful storm as it moved through the Florida Keys and near the state's west coast.

On Sunday morning the hurricane was centred about 20 miles east-southeast of Key West, Florida, and was moving north-northwest at 8 mph.

The Key West International Airport measured sustained winds of 50 mph with a gust of up to 70 mph, according to the hurricane centre.

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for a wide swathe 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.

Tens of thousands of people huddling in shelters watched for updates.

In the Tampa Bay area, access to all of Pinellas County's barrier islands, including the popular spring break destination of Clearwater Beach, was shut off.

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 Sunday, Carol Walterson Stroud (60) and her family were huddled in a third floor apartment at a centre for the elderly in Key West.

"We are good so far," she said in a text message just before 5.30am. "It's blowing hard."

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

Mrs 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 is "total peace and quiet".

Florida governor Rick Scott had warned residents in the state's evacuation zones on Saturday 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 was exposed. Forecasters said the greater Miami area of six million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of 4ft to 6ft.

Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic with a peak wind speed of 185 mph last week. It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean and as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico's bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, it was expected to regain strength.

Meteorologists predicted Irma would plough into the Tampa Bay area on Monday morning. The area has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Centre spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now around three million people live there.

The latest course also still threatens Naples' mansion and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Centre's retirement homes, and Sanibel Island's shell-filled beaches.

Irma's course change caught many off guard and triggered a major round of last-minute evacuations in the Tampa area.

Many businesses had yet to protect windows with plywood or hurricane shutters. Some locals grumbled about the forecast, even though Florida's west coast had long been included in the zone of probability.

"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, 52, in St Petersburg. "As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid."

Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and the latest projections could shift again, aiming the worst of the storm at other parts of the state.

Forecasters warned of storm surges as high as 15ft.

"This is going to sneak up on people," said Jamie Rhome, head of the hurricane centre's storm surge unit.

Given its mammoth size and strength and its course up the peninsula, it could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida, and inflict damage on a scale not seen there in 25 years.

Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph, damaging or blowing apart more than 125,000 homes. At least 40 people died.

Meanwhile, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson has pledged to be there "in the long term" for British people whose Caribbean homes have been devastated by Hurricane Irma.

Brushing aside critics, he said there had been an unprecedented effort from the UK to meet what had been an "unprecedented catastrophe in that part of the Caribbean".

Mr Johnson said, in addition to the £32 million already set aside following the disaster, the British government would be matching public donations to the Red Cross appeal.

Returning from the latest of a series of emergency Cobra meetings, he said: "This is just the beginning.

"A terrible thing has happened to British overseas territories.

"These are British people and we are here for the long term and we will come through with a recovery plan working with our partners in the region.

"We will come through with a recovery plan for those islands and make sure they get back on their feet again."

Irma has claimed at least 20 lives, including at least four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda, and left thousands of people homeless when it smashed into the region on Wednesday.

Having battered the north coast of Cuba, the storm reached Florida with Britons in the historic storm's path being warned their situation may "deteriorate significantly".

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