HURRICANE Irma has weakened to a Category 1 storm but authorities are warning those in its path not to be complacent.
The massive hurricane zeroed in on the Tampa Bay region early Monday local time after hammering much of Florida with roof-ripping winds, gushing floodwaters and widespread power outages.
The hurricane’s maximum sustained winds weakened to 135 kilometres per hour with additional weakening expected.
As of 2am (4pm AEST), the storm was centered about 40 kilometeres northeast of Tampa and moving north-northwest.
Irma continues its slog north along Florida’s western coast having blazed a path of as yet unknown destruction.
With communication cut to some of the Florida Keys, where Irma made landfall Sunday, and rough conditions persisting across the peninsula, many are holding their breath for what daylight might reveal.
The 2013 World Bank study ranked Tampa as the seventh most vulnerable city in the world according to the projected overall cost of damage.
The city’s flat geography makes it incredibly vulnerable to hurricanes. It was also less of a focus for preparations as the main brunt of Irma was expected to be felt elsewhere in the state.
Forecasts warn Irma will remain a powerful storm as it flooded Miami streets and knocked out power to more than four million homes and businesses.
A storm surge warning was issued for much of the Florida Peninsula and extended into southern Carolina.
The Hurricane Center warned this would bring the risk of “dangerous” and “life-threatening” inundation. It stated the threat was highest along Florida’s southwest coast and in Florida Keys, where it said the surge is expected to be “catastrophic” with 1.5m to three metres or more expected to inundate much of the island chain.
“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Governor Rick Scott said on Fox News Sunday as some 116,000 people statewide took refuge in shelters.
All of southern Florida was feeling the storm’s effects on Sunday afternoon, with at least three killed, a woman forced to deliver her own baby and trees and apartment towers swaying in high winds.
TV crews have already caught locals looting in Fort Lauderdale, leading police to their arrests.
Nine people were caught by police after a local news station WPLG recorded the group ransacking a vacant sportswear store.
Men and women are shown in the video allegedly moving in and out of a broken window, as winds buffet an otherwise empty street and parking lot.
Two manatees were stranded after Hurricane Irma sucked the water out of Sarasota Bay, in Florida’s Manatee County.
Several people posted photos of the mammals, hoping rescue workers or wildlife officials would respond. Michael Sechler posted that the animals were far too massive to be lifted, so they gave them water. Marcelo Clavijo posted that a group of people eventually loaded the manatees onto tarps and dragged them to deeper water.
TRUMP DECLARES MAJOR DISASTER
US President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in Florida, and ordered federal funds to help the state and NGO recovery work that will begin once the storm allows.
He called the storm “some big monster” as it battered the Florida coast.
“The bad news is that this is some big monster,” Trump said at the White House.
“Right now, we are worried about lives, not cost,” he said after returning from Camp David.
Earlier, the National Hurricane Center said the storm had maximum sustained winds of 195km/h, dropping it to a Category 3, the midpoint of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
‘THE WATER IS STARTING TO RISE’
Sydney woman Marlies Laaper is riding out the hurricane in her Cape Coral cafe with her husband Uri and spoke to News Corp.
“The eye of the hurricane is passing us right now,” she said.
“It’s passing to the east of us, not the west. It’s taken another turn more to the inland of Florida.
“We can’t see much because all the windows and doors are boarded up with hurricane shutters and we are also hunkered down in an internal room where it is safest.
“The howling winds and sound of the rain are incredibly loud.
“Every now and then one of us goes to see what it looks like outside. The water is starting to rise.
“A mandatory evacuation order was announced yesterday morning for the area in Cape Coral where we live because it’s close to the water. So we evacuated to the building where the cafe is.
“This morning we woke up to find the mandatory evacuation area was increased to include the cafe building. We thought about going further north but to move with 8 people a dog and a cat is not so easy last minute so we decided to stay put.”
Irma had been one of the most powerful hurricanes ever seen in the Atlantic, killing 28 people in the Caribbean and pummelling Cuba with 11m, waves on Sunday.
Its arrival in the US forced one of the largest evacuations in American history.
“The biggest thing you can do now is pray,” Governor Rick Scott said.
MAKES LANDFALL IN NAPLES AND MARCO ISLAND
The eye of Hurricane Irma was nearing the city of Naples in South Florida on Sunday afternoon local time.
It has already made landfall on nearby Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane. A 210 km/h wind gust was recorded at Marco Island Emergency Operations Center at about 3pm local time.
The National Hurricane Center said Irma had winds of 195km/h and was centred 30km south of Naples on Sunday afternoon. It was moving north at 19km/h. At that rate, the centre of the storm should come ashore sometime between 4 and 5pm local time.
A storm surge of 2.7m to 4.5m above ground level was reported there, according to the New York Times.