Hurricane Charley has slammed into the coast of Florida, ripping up
trees and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.
The storm gathered strength as it headed inland
Packing winds up to 145mph (230km/h), Charley hit land south of Tampa and threatened to swamp the low-lying area with a 15-foot (4.6m) tidal surge.
The authorities say they have evacuated 1.4m people from at-risk areas.
"This is a serious, serious storm," said Governor Jeb Bush, who has declared a state of emergency.
Thousands of National Guard troops have been put on standby.
Charley reached landfall at 1550 (1950 GMT) just south-west of Fort Myers, and about 160 miles (257km) south-east of the Tampa Bay area, the most populous region on Florida's west coast.
"We are ground zero for Hurricane Charley," Wayne Sallade, director of emergency management in Charlotte County told the Associated Press news agency.
Many streets were deserted, and even the Charlotte County emergency operation centre was evacuated, AP reported.
On Fort Myers Beach, sea water swamped the barrier island.
Before reaching land, it increased to "category four" - the second most severe on the five-level Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale.
Rainfall of up to 20cm (eight inches) and flash flooding are likely.
Officials in Florida's St Petersburg-Clearwater area have told 350,000 people to leave beach areas and mobile home parks.
In the Florida Keys area, tourists and residents were ordered to evacuate from mobile homes.
Residents along Florida's south-western coast had been boarding up their homes and stocking up on water, tinned food and batteries.
"There is not much that scares me in this world, but this is one of them," said one of them.
Schools and government offices were closed on Friday.
"My principal message here today is to urge people who have not experienced a hurricane to take this very, very seriously," Governor Bush said.
But early on Friday, few people had heeded calls to go to special shelters, worrying emergency officials.
"We're worried about people who have stayed behind and are still in grave danger. Again, I cannot emphasise this any more. This is not a tropical storm. It is a major storm. If you're in these areas, you must act now," said Craig Fugate, Florida's emergency management director.
Meteorologists say this could be the worst storm to hit the US since 1992 when Hurricane Andrew caused billions of dollars worth of damage in Miami.
The hurricane earlier hit Cuba, causing widespread damage to property. It reportedly claimed three lives in the Havana area.