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Hurricane Irma ravages Florida; at least 28 dead

Hurricane Irma pounded heavily populated areas of central Florida on Monday as it carved through the state with high winds, storm surges and torrential rains that left millions without power, ripped roofs off homes and flooded city streets.

Irma, once ranked as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic, came ashore in Florida on Sunday and battered towns as it worked its way up the state.

The storm gradually lost strength, weakening to a Category 1 hurricane overnight, the National Hurricane Center said. By 5 AM ET (0900 GMT), Irma was churning northwest in the center of the state and was about 60 miles (100 km) north of Tampa, with maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour.)

Much of the state's east and west coasts remained vulnerable to storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels. That risk extended to the coast of Georgia and parts of South Carolina, the hurricane center said.

Officials planned to wait until first light on Monday to begin rescue efforts and assess damage, the Miami Herald cited Florida Director of Emergency Management Bryan Koon as saying. He did not give any numbers on possible fatalities.

Damage appeared to be severe in the Florida Keys, where Irma first came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 kph) in the early hours of Sunday, the paper quoted Monroe County Emergency Director Martin Senterfitt as saying.

A large military airborne relief operation was being prepared to take help to the chain of islands, which are linked by a dramatic series of bridges and causeways from Key Largo almost 100 miles (160 km) southwest to the city of Key West, Senterfitt told a teleconference.

Early on Monday, Irma brought gusts of up to 100 mph (160 kph) and torrential rain to areas around Orlando, one of the most popular areas for tourism in Florida because of its cluster of theme parks, the National Weather Service said.

In Daytona Beach, a city on the east coast about 55 miles (90 km) northeast of Orlando, city streets were flooded and emergency authorities carried out several water rescues, the Daytona Beach Police Department said on Twitter.

Over the weekend, Irma claimed its first US fatality - a man found dead in a pickup truck that had crashed into a tree in high winds in the town of Marathon, in the Florida Keys, local officials said.

The storm killed at least 28 people as it raged westward through the Caribbean en route to Florida. Irma was ranked a Category 5, the rare top end of the scale of hurricane intensity, for days, and carried maximum sustained winds of up to 185 mph (295 kph) when it crashed into the island of Barbuda on Wednesday.