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Irma slices into Florida with soaking rain, dangerous winds

WASHINGTON - A weakened but still threatening category-2 Hurricane Irma barrelled into Florida on Sunday, engulfing the state and spreading heavy rainfall and strong winds over an area hundreds of kilometres wide.

The storm defied predictions and remained over land, drifting slightly eastward toward the centre of the state, after forecasters said it was likely to hug the state's Gulf coast on its destructive path northward.

The massive category-2 storm, packing heavy rain and strong winds, was centred about 25 kilometres east-north-east of Fort Myers, a major city on the state's Gulf coast, the National Hurricane Center said in its 8 pm (0000 GMT Monday) statement.

Maximum sustained winds decreased to about 165 kilometres per hour with higher gusts, downing trees that in turn knocked out power to millions of homes.

Although more weakening was forecast, Irma was expected to remain a hurricane at least through Monday morning, the hurricane agency said.

The eye of Irma - the strongest part of the storm - should move toward Florida's west coast through Monday morning and continue into northern Florida and Georgia, the agency said.

The hurricane agency posted warnings about dangerous storm surges, with officials especially concerned about how the surge would affect Tampa Bay, which lies halfway up the peninsula on the Gulf side.

The surge, expected to sweep in after the worst of the storm passes, could be life-threatening in many areas, with destructive breaking waves that raise water levels above normal tide levels, the agency said.

The deepest water was expected to occur along the immediate coast in areas where onshore winds were most intense. The depth of the surge would depend on the relative timing with the tide and could vary greatly over short distances.

Damage was already reported from flooding that turned streets into rivers in Miami, on the Atlantic coast, and in Key West on Florida's archipelago, photos posted on Twitter showed.

Irma dumped around 38 centimetres of rain in the Florida Keys and around 25 centimetres was falling in western Florida. Slightly lower amounts of rain were forecast for other areas of southern Florida, along with possible tornadoes.

"In all areas, this rainfall may cause life-threatening flash floods

and, in some areas, mudslides," the hurricane agency said.

Irma made landfall Sunday morning as a category-4 hurricane over the Florida Keys, drifted over water briefly, then made landfall on the peninsula Sunday afternoon as a category-3 storm.

A state of emergency had been in effect in the state for days, giving millions of people a chance to get out of the state or head to shelters.

About 2 million home customers in the state were without electricity as a result of power lines snapped by Hurricane Irma's winds, energy company FPL reported on its website Sunday afternoon. About 200,000 of them had been restored, it said.

News reports saying the number of power outages had grown by Sunday evening could not be confirmed, as FPL's website was down.

US President Donald Trump said he would travel to Florida as soon as possible to get a first-hand look at damage caused by Hurricane Irma. Trump also praised his administration's emergency response thus far.

"Every group is coordinating really well. The bad news is this (is) some big monster, but I think we're very well put," he said.

Trump declined to provide a dollar figure when asked how much the storm will cost.

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