Irma's center nears Tampa after unleashing damaging winds, floods in march up Florida

Tampa and surrounding areas were bracing late Sunday for the brunt of Hurricane Irma after the Category-2 storm walloped South Florida with menacing winds and powerful storm surge.

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"Let's just say a prayer we hope we make it through," Sally Carlson told The Associated Press from St. Petersburg. "I've been here with other storms, other hurricanes. But this one scares me."

Hurricane Irma made landfall on Marco Island Sunday afternoon -- its second landfall in the state.

Florida as the state continues to brace for the now-Category 2 storm's strong, 105-mph winds and flooding. The storm ravaged the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane earlier in the day before being downgraded.

In its 8 p.m. ET advisory, the National Hurricane Center said Irma was about 15 miles east-northeast of Fort Meyers and about 30 miles southeast of Port Charlotte, with maximum sustained winds of 105 miles per hour, and heading north at 14 mph.

"Dangerous storm surges expected immediately after" the eye of the storm moves up the Florida coast, the NHC said. Storm surge warnings were in effect for South Santee River to Jupiter Inlet, North Miami Beach to the Ochlockonee River, as well as for the Florida Keys and Tampa Bay. 

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Water levels were rapidly riding in Naples, the NHC reported. A federal tide gauge in Naples reported a 7 foot ride of water in just 90 minutes. 

The nearly 400-mile-wide storm was expected to increase its speed Sunday night on its move north through Monday, according to the NHC. Irma is forecast to move inland toward north Florida and southwest Georgia Monday afternoon. 

At least 28 people have died as Hurricane Irma barreled through the Caribbean this week, destroying buildings and uprooting trees on its path toward Florida.

As for the U.S., at least one person has been reported dead in Orange County, Florida, after a vehicle struck a guardrail on State Road 417 Sunday, the Orlando Sentinel reported. It's unconfirmed if the car crash was connected to Irma. 

Officials were urging people to stay sheltered in protected areas, even if it looks like the storm has passed.

"Just because it seems like the weather is clearing up, that doesn't mean it's safe to get out on the roads," said Miami-Dade County spokesman Mike Hernandez, who said he's seen reports of people leaving county hurricane shelters.

Meanwhile, Tampa officials set up a curfew and were preparing to meet Irma, which is expected to hit the city around midnight Sunday. 

A report by global property data firm CoreLogin found that nearly 455,000 Tampa Bay homes could be damaged by expected storm surges.

"We know we are ground zero for this storm," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at a news conference announcing the curfew. "We have avoided it for 90 years, but our time has come to be ready."

"It is important to remember not to just focus on the forecast cone, as it does not take into account the large size of Irma, with dangerous impacts expected outside of the path of the center," Fox News Senior Meteorologist Janice Dean said.

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. This marks the first year on record the continental U.S. has had two Category 4 hurricane landfalls in the same year.

In Palm Bay, Florida, located about 74 miles southeast of Orlando, police said six mobile homes were destroyed by a tornado, but no injuries were reported.

The National Weather Service in Miami said a "fast-moving tornado" was reported at Fort Lauderdale International Airport crossing Interstate 595, but no information of possible damage was immediately available.

President Trump on Sunday approved a major disaster declaration in Florida making temporary aid available to those affected by Irma in nine counties already hit by the storm.

“I am thankful that President Trump, who I’ve spoken with multiple times this week, has been 100 percent supportive of our efforts and offered every resource of the federal government," Gov. Rick Scott said in a news release. "Working with local emergency management professionals and FEMA, we will make sure that no expense is spared to help families respond and recover."

Federal funding also is available to governments and non-profit organizations for emergencies in all 67 Florida counties. For the first 30 days, that money will cover 100 percent of the costs of some emergency responses.

More than 3.3 million homes and businesses in Florida have lost power as of Sunday evening after Irma tore through the state. That number is expected to rise as the storm moves north.

Florida Power & Light Company said more than 2.1 million customers throughout much of south Florida have lost power as of Sunday afternoon. More than 845,000 of those customers are based in Miami-Dade County.

Duke Energy, the dominant utility company in the northern part of Florida, has around 13,000 outages. 

Meanwhile, most of Florida’s major airports – including those in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando – were closed.

An estimated 127,000 Floridians huddled in shelters Sunday as Irma landfall on the Keys. The state’s evacuation zones encompass a staggering 6.4 million people, or more than 1 in 4 people in the state. Facebook has also activated its Safety Check service that lets users notify friends and family that they are safe.

Growing threat to Tampa Bay area

The new course by Irma poses a greater threat to the twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as Naples' mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center's retirement homes, and Sanibel Island's shell-filled beaches.

The course change from Florida's east coast caught many off guard and triggered a major round of evacuations. Many west coast businesses had yet to put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals grumbled about the forecast.

"I'm terrified," Nicole Manuel told the Tampa Bay Times. "I keep on hearing different things, different changes. How fast is it coming? When is it even coming? It's different every time I see the TV."

Nearly the entire Florida coastline remained under hurricane watches and warnings, and leery residents watched a projected track that could still shift to spare, or savage, parts of the state.

With the new forecast, Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, ordered 260,000 people to leave, while people heading inland from the Tampa area were allowed to drive on the shoulder.

Local leaders put out a warning to anyone living in an evacuation zone, including some of their own neighbors. 

The Tampa Bay area has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now around 3 million people live there.

Miami spared direct hit, but danger remains

Howling winds and downpours battered Miami-Dade County, causing street flooding and downing trees as bands from the storm lashed the area.

At least two cranes collapsed Sunday in Miami, while a third crashed in Fort Lauderdale, as Irma's powerful winds lashed South Florida. 

In downtown Miami near Biscayne Bay, storm surge generated from the monster storm flooded parts of the downtown area. Stop signs were down, some trees were bent, while others were entirely uprooted, and there is a significant amount of debris flying across the downtown.

Several tornadoes were also reported in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, including a waterspout that formed on Fort Lauderdale Beach, according to WSVN.

In the southern part of Miami-Dade County, a 50-year-old tree was uprooted by winds from the storm and fell on top of one resident's home in Cutler Bay.

“It’s an oak tree. They’re supposed to have deep roots,”  Arturo Vargas told WSVN. “It was here during the last hurricane, so we imagined that it would still be here.”

With Irma taking more of a Western turn, some residents said they were surprised the storm is still capable of so much damage.

“We weren’t expecting this at all,” said Vargas.

Guardsmen activated

The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.

"We've got over 7,000 soldiers standing by ready to support the citizens," Florida National Guard Brig Gen Ralph Ribas told Fox News. 

In the Orlando area, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World all closed Saturday. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay was also closed.

Prior to eyeing Florida, the storm slammed Cuba, where it was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall there since 1932. As Irma left Cuba late Saturday and directed its winds toward Florida, authorities on the island were assessing the damage and warning of staggering damage to keys off the northern coast studded with all-inclusive resorts and cities, as well as farmland in central Cuba.

Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.

Fox News' Barnini Chakraborty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.