TAMPA — The National Hurricane Center says the eye of powerful Hurricane Irma is expected to hit southwest Florida and Tampa sometime Sunday. While it was downgraded to a Category 3 storm on Saturday after its maximum sustained winds weakened to 125 mph, it was expected to restrengthen before moving toward southwest Florida Sunday.
Irma pounded Cuba early Saturday with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph). Irma had briefly regained Category 5 strength late Friday, but now has maximum sustained winds of 155 mph (249 kph). In the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose is a Category 4 hurricane, about 190 miles (306 kilometers) east-southeast of The Northern Leeward Islands, moving toward the islands at 13 mph (20.92 kph) with winds reaching 150 mph.
Florida emergency management officials say at least 51,000 residents have hunkered down in approximately 300 shelters ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Most of those staying in shelters are in southeast Florida, which initially looked to be the main target of the storm before the forecast shifted west. More than 15,000 people are in shelters in Palm Beach County while neighboring Broward County has nearly 13,000 people.
The threat of Irma has prompted state and local officials to ask 5.6 million residents to flee ahead of the storm. It’s expected to come ashore Sunday and take aim at the Tampa Bay area.
Officials in the Florida Keys are evacuating some 460 inmates and 125 corrections officers from a jail on Stock Island to a jail in Palm Beach County.
Spokeswoman Becky Herrin said in a news release that Sheriff Rick Ramsey made the decision Friday night because of the changing path of Hurricane Irma. The jail on Stock Island is near Key West on the lower end on the island chain.