President Trump urges citizens to 'just get out of its way' as powerful storm approaches continental US
Irma, downgraded to Category 3 but still packing destructive 120 mile-per-hour (195 kmh) sustained winds, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC) as of 10 p.m. (0200 SUNDAY GMT), has triggered mass evacuations of historic proportions in Florida and the neighboring states.
Hurricane-force winds of up to 62 mile-per-hour (100 kmh) gusts were already reported in the Florida Keys, a strip of islands nearly 120 miles (195 km) off the southern tip of the state, according to the center.
Millions have been asked to leave and tens of thousands are in shelters as the center of the storm was expected to reach the Keys by Sunday morning and then Tampa or Miami.
Regardless of the route that the eye of the storm takes, Irma "will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of Florida", according to the NHC.
Irma devastated the Caribbeans as a top-tier Category 5 storm, killing at least two dozen people and leaving several islands almost uninhabitable.
After a cabinet meeting in Camp David, about 60 miles (96 km) from D.C., President Trump urged Floridians to comply with evacuation advisories.
"Just get out of its way," he said. "Property is replaceable but lives are not and safety has to come first."
Earlier on Saturday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said almost a quarter of the state's 20 million population -- fourth largest nationwide -- had been ordered to evacuate.
"The storm is here," he said, stressing the need for everyone in the storm's path to evacuate.
Scott said storm surge, an abnormal hurricane-induced rise in water levels, could reach 15 feet (4.5 m) in places. The National Hurricane Center describes storm surge as, "often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane".
“Fifteen feet is devastating and will cover your house,” Gov. Scott said. “Do not think the storm is over when the wind slows down. The storm surge will rush in and it could kill you.”
Meanwhile, eastern Caribbean islands braced for another powerful storm in Jose, a Category 4 hurricane that followed in Irma's wake but was not expected to threaten the continental U.S.
The country is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, which caused major damage last month in the southern U.S. state of Texas and neighboring Louisiana, wiping out as many as 40,000 homes in the Texas city of Houston.