WASHINGTON (AP) - For an entire generation in South Florida, Hurricane Andrew was the monster storm that reshaped a region. Irma is likely to blow that out of the water.
Bigger and with a much different path of potential destruction, Irma is forecast to hit lots more people and buildings than 1992's Andrew, said experts, including veterans of Andrew. At the time, the National Weather Service says, Andrew was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history with damages of $26.5 billion in 1992 dollars - or about $50 billion in current dollars.
As of Friday morning, Irma downgraded to a Category 4, but with high and dangerous winds of 155 mph. It's likely it will return to a Category 5.
FOX 13's meteorologist Dave Osterberg said this will be mainly a "wind event" for Tampa Bay. The first round of mandatory evacuations for the area was issued for Pinellas County residents in low-lying areas and mobile home on Friday morning. This isn't a storm that will churn over Florida for days like Hurricane Harvey did in Texas. It will move through the state in 24 hours.
Kate Hale, Miami-Dade's emergency management chief says by nearly every measure, Irma looks far worse. She told The Associated Press on Thursday: "Nobody can make this up. This storm. This track at this point."
More than a half-million people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to leave as Irma closed in with winds of 160 mph.
The storm has triggered near-panic in a region of more than 6 million people that includes Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, clustered along a narrow ribbon of coastline that has seen nearly double-digit population growth over the past five years.
Isabella Janse Van Vuuren just arrived - she left her home in South Africa two weeks ago to start a job as a stewardess on a yacht, which she and other crew members spent time securing. As Irma approached, she was trying to decide whether to stay or go.
"I'm terrified," she said. "I'm not used to this. I just want to go into a cave and hide, basically. This is not a nice feeling."
But for veterans of life in the Sunshine State, hurricanes are as Floridian as oranges and Mickey Mouse. And every hurricane season brings with it the chance of cataclysm.
In 1928, a hurricane caused Lake Okeechobee to burst its banks, unleashing a 20-foot (6-meter) wall of water that killed an estimated 2,500 people. The event was a key part of Zora Neale Hurston's classic 1937 novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
"All gods who receive homage are cruel," she wrote. "All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion."
Another famed storm, the killer 1935 Labor Day hurricane that swept across the Florida Keys, is central to the plot of the 1948 movie "Key Largo," which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Irma could be the strongest hurricane to ever hit southern Florida. Andrew hit in August 1992 and caused widespread damage south of Miami. It caused the deaths of at least 40 people in Miami-Dade County alone, according to the National Hurricane Center, with 65 deaths blamed total including those in Louisiana and the Bahamas.
"It was very scary. We just had no idea how bad it was going to be," said Rosi Ramirez, who went through Andrew as a child in Homestead.
She's leaving Florida for South Carolina with her three children. "I don't want my kids to go through that traumatic experience. I hadn't thought about Andrew in a while. But now I am seeing some flashes of what we went through. It is all coming back."
Irma battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday as the fearsome Category 5 storm continued a rampage through the Caribbean that has killed at least 11 people, with Florida in its sights.
Waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters) were expected in the Turks and Caicos. Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was unclear.