Hurricane Ian has made landfall in south-west Florida, near Cayo Costa, as a massive Category 4 storm.
About 2.5 million people had been ordered to evacuate south-west Florida before the storm hit the coast with maximum sustained winds of 150mph.
The storm is heading inland, where it was expected to weaken, but residents in central Florida could still experience hurricane-force winds.
The massive storm was expected to trigger flooding across a wide area of Florida as it crawls north-eastwards across the peninsula.
Mark Pritchett stepped outside his home in Venice around the time the hurricane came ashore about 35 miles to the south. He called it “terrifying”.
“I literally couldn’t stand against the wind,” Mr Pritchett wrote in a text message shortly after landfall.
“Rain shooting like needles. My street is a river. Limbs and trees down. And the worst is yet to come.”
“This is going to be a nasty nasty day, two days,” Florida Gov Ron DeSantis said, stressing that people in Ian’s path along the coast should rush to the safest possible shelter and stay there.
Off the coast on Sanibel Island, just south of where Ian made landfall, traffic cameras hours earlier showed swirling water that flooded streets and was halfway up mailbox posts.
Seawater rushed out of Tampa Bay as the storm approached, leaving parts of the muddy bottom exposed, and waves crashed over the end of a wooden pier at Naples.
Ian had strengthened rapidly overnight, prompting Fort Myers handyman Tom Hawver to abandon his plan to weather the hurricane at home and head across the state to Fort Lauderdale.
“We were going to stay and then just decided when we got up, and they said 155 mph winds,” Mr Hawver said. “We don’t have a generator. I just don’t see the advantage of sitting there in the dark, in a hot house, watching water come in your house.”
The governor said the state has 30,000 linemen, urban search and rescue teams, and 7,000 National Guard troops from Florida and elsewhere ready to help once the weather clears.
Florida residents rushed ahead of the impact to board up heir homes, stash precious belongings on upper floors and join long lines of cars leaving the shore.
Some decided to try and ride out the storm. Jared Lewis, a Tampa delivery driver, said his home has withstood hurricanes in the past, though not as powerful as Ian.
“It is kind of scary, makes you a bit anxious,” he said. “After the last year of not having any, now you go to a Category 4 or 5. We are more used to the 2s and 3s.”
Ian made landfall more than 100 miles south of Tampa and St Petersburg, sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area from its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
Officials warned residents that Tampa could still experience powerful winds and up to 20 inches of rain.
“Please, please, please be aware that we are not out of danger yet,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video on Twitter. “Flooding is still going to occur.”
Flash floods were possible across all of Florida. Hazards include the polluted leftovers of Florida’s phosphate fertilizer mining industry, more than one billion tons of slightly radioactive waste contained in enormous ponds that could overflow in heavy rains.
Isolated tornadoes spun off the storm well ahead of landfall. One tornado damaged small planes and a hangar at the North Perry Airport, west of Hollywood along the Atlantic coast.
The federal government sent 300 ambulances with medical teams and was ready to truck in 3.7 million meals and 3.5 million litres of water once the storm passes.
“We’ll be there to help you clean up and rebuild, to help Florida get moving again,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday. “And we’ll be there every step of the way. That’s my absolute commitment to the people of the state of Florida.”