Hurricane Irma regained strength as it closed in on the Florida Keys early Sunday and forecasters monitored a crucial shift in its trajectory—just a few miles to the west—that could keep its ferocious eye off the southwest Florida coast and over warm Gulf water. The hurricane re-strengthened to Category 4 with maximum sustained winds near 130mph, reports the AP. The National Hurricane Center said Irma was expected to weaken but would remain a powerful storm as it moved through the Florida Keys and near the state's west coast. As of 5am EDT Sunday, the hurricane was centered about 40 miles south-southeast of Key West, and had sped up slightly, moving northwest at 8mph. Tens of thousands huddling in shelters watched for updates as the storm swung west, now potentially sparing Tampa as well Miami the catastrophic head-on blow forecasters had warned of for days.
But those few miles meant St. Petersburg could get a direct hit, rather than its more populous twin across Tampa Bay. Neither city has suffered a major hurricane in nearly a century. The leading edge of the storm bent palm trees and spit rain across South Florida, knocking out power to more than 170,000 homes and businesses, as the eye approached Key West. Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in evacuation zones Saturday that "this is your last chance to make a good decision." About 6.4 million were told to flee. Forecasters said the greater Miami area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening hurricane winds and storm surge of 4 to 6 feet. 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. (Read more Hurricane Irma stories.)