(Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Irma continued churning toward southwestern Florida, threatening severe damage in Tampa and other cities facing the Gulf of Mexico in what could end up being the most expensive storm in US history.
President Donald Trump discussed round-the-clock preparations now under way with his Cabinet, calling Irma "a storm of enormous destructive power."
With top winds of 120 miles (193 kilometres) an hour, the deadly storm is expected to strike the Florida Keys Sunday morning then follow the state’s Gulf Coast north, the US National Hurricane Center said in an advisory around 11pm New York time. At Category 3, Irma is expected to regain strength overnight.
Rob Miller, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania, said a track "near or just to the west is almost, if not, a worst-case scenario for Tampa Bay," said "It shoves all the water into Tampa Bay and then shoves it right into downtown."
The storm has left at least 22 people dead and thousands homeless across the Caribbean, and threatens to rack up as much as $200 billion in damages. Irma’s anticipated northern turn has just begun, raising the threat to Florida’s west coast while potentially sparing Miami a direct hit.
As of midnight in New York, Irma was about 80 miles southeast of Key West, according to the hurricane center. It could pass over the island city sometime after 7am local time Sunday as a Category 4, said Alan Reppert, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.
It will then continue up the coast making a second landfall between Fort Myers and Sarasota later in the day, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"A trajectory west of previous forecasts will still mean hurricane-force winds for the entire southern portion of Florida from coast to coast," said Shunondo Basu, meteorologist and natgas analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Storm damage may worsen if Irma drifts along Florida’s west coast without coming ashore and weakening, said David Streit, a meteorologist at Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland. On its current path, Irma may wipe out as much as 20 percent of the citrus crop in the world’s second-largest orange juice producer.
Some 6.5 million residents have been ordered to evacuate, Florida Governor Rick Scott said at a press briefing late Saturday. Almost 400 shelters are open in counties in the path of the storm. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area is home to about 3 million people.
"We’re as prepared as you can be for such an event, that I can say," Trump said during the Cabinet meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, according to video footage posted on Twitter. "We’re in constant communications with all the governors, with the state and local officials."
Irma is one of two tropical systems churning in the region. Jose, the third major hurricane of the 2017 season, is gradually weakening, with winds of 130 miles per hour. Katia broke apart after making landfall in Mexico. The country was struck by a powerful earthquake on Friday, shaking buildings in the capital and triggering a tsunami warning.
Damage from Irma could top $120 billion in Florida, with other economic losses pushing the price tag as high as $200 billion, said Chuck Watson, a Savannah, Georgia-based disaster modeler with Enki Research. A strike near Tampa could cause as much as $250 billion in damage.
"That is an outside possibility and requires the storm to hit the right place, at the right time, at the right angle," Watson said. "But it’s a 1 in 20 chance right now."
Preliminary estimates show losses across the Caribbean nearing $10 billion, CoreLogic, a risk modeler in Irvine, California, said. About 8.5 million properties in Florida may be damaged by Irma’s winds. Another 3.5 million are vulnerable to storm surge, which could reach 15 feet, inundating areas from Captiva to Cape Sable.
"In southwest Florida, the storm surge comes after the strongest winds," Scott said. "Do not think the storm is over when the wind slows down. Local officials will let you know when it is safe. The storm surge will rush in and it could kill you."
The governor also warned of the potential for hurricane-force winds extending north into the Florida panhandle, and said tornadoes are possible in south Florida this evening and central Florida on Sunday.
Total losses from Hurricane Katrina reached $160 billion in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005.
More than 4.4 million customers of the state’s two largest utilities may lose power, according to company forecasts Saturday. Crews from as far as Massachusetts and California are in state to aid restoration efforts.
Florida Power & Light Co. said it now has 16,000 repair staff in the state, triple the normal amount. Irma may also curb natural gas demand in one of the largest US markets.
Irma comes just two weeks after Harvey smashed ashore in Texas, knocking offline almost a quarter of US oil refining capacity and causing widespread power outages and flooding.