POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Irma continues to hurtle toward Florida’s doorstep, threatening to ravage the state with destruction not seen in a generation.
As the weather forecasts and warnings from officials grew increasingly dire, hundreds of thousands of people across Florida fled their homes before the rapidly closing window to escape Irma’s wrath slammed shut. Forecasters said Irma, a hurricane of remarkable size and power that already has battered islands across the Caribbean, would approach South Florida by Sunday morning and is likely to slam into the state’s southern tip before tracking north across a heavily populated area.
The track of the storm, however, shifted overnight: The eye of the storm is now expected to head up the state’s west coast, rather than the middle. Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa are now expected to bear the brunt of the storm. But because of the size of the storm, Florida’s east coast remains in danger, including from storm surges that will easily overwhelm some areas. But before the storm reaches the peninsula, the Florida Keys will experience the full force of the storm.
Regardless of its track, all of Florida will likely experience damaging winds, rains, flooding and possibly tornadoes.
“This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said at a news conference in Sarasota Saturday morning.
Scott implored people living in evacuation zones to leave their homes, telling people on in the southwest part of the state to leave their homes by noon for a shelter or elsewhere.
“Once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you,” he said.
Scott said there are more than 260 shelters open statewide housing at least 50,000 people; at least 70 additional shelters are expected to open today. He said the state desperately needs about 1,000 nurses to volunteer in its special needs shelters. Scott said he has spoken with President Trump and William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who have guaranteed all necessary federal resources.
After days of calm, ordinary summer weather, Miami residents woke to powerful wind gusts and bouts of torrential rain before dawn, followed by calm conditions again under low, gray clouds. Irma’s outermost bands appear to have arrived. With the storm still more than 200 miles away, Miami International Airport clocked a wind gust of 57 mph just after 7:30 a.m. Saturday. Nearly 25,000 people have already lost power across the state as of Saturday morning.
“It’s not a question of if Florida’s going to be impacted, it’s a question of how bad Florida’s going to be impacted,” Long said Friday at a news conference.
Officials in Georgia and the Carolinas — where heavy rains and flooding are expected early next week — have declared emergencies, but attention remained focused on Florida. Forecasts call for up to 20 inches of rain and thrashing winds no matter how the storm pivots before hitting the mainland United States.
“Irma is likely to make landfall in Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center,” the National Hurricane Center said.
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As of 5 a.m. Saturday, Irma had maximum sustained winds near 155 mph and higher gusts as it moved over Cuba’s Camaguey Archipelago as a Category 4 storm, the hurricane center said.
Local, state and federal officials have offered ominous warnings as the storm zeroed in on Florida, making clear how much danger they felt the Sunshine State could face in coming days. Long urged people from Alabama to North Carolina to monitor and prepare for the storm, calling it “a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or some of the southeastern states.”
About 5.6 million people in Florida and 540,000 in Georgia have been ordered to evacuate.
Floridians are familiar with ominous forecasts and hurricane warnings, and many have painful memories of Hurricane Andrew, which made landfall as a Category 5 monster in 1992, and other storms that brought lashing rain and winds. But when asked about people in South Florida who intend to ride out the storm at home, Long was blunt.
“I can guarantee you that I don’t know anybody in Florida that’s ever experienced what’s about to hit South Florida,” Long said. “They need to get out and listen and heed the warnings.”
Mark DeMaria, acting deputy director of the hurricane center, said Friday afternoon that the latest models showed the storm track shifting slightly to the west, putting southwest Florida in particular jeopardy for the most violent winds, while all of South Florida will have significant impacts.
“We really want to emphasize the very vulnerable Southwest Florida area,” DeMaria said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has warned people that evacuation zones could expand and said that all Floridians “should be prepared” to leave their homes. Scott also has cited the memories of Andrew, calling Irma “more devastating on its current path” and warning that much of the state could be imperiled.
In addition to having intense power, Irma also is an immense storm, with forecasters reporting hurricane-force winds extending some 70 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extending as far as 195 miles out.
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Airports around the state said they would suspend flights and cease operations. Publix, a grocery-store chain, announced plans to close stores across the state in waves and did not say when they would reopen. Tom Bossert, homeland security adviser to President Trump, on Friday said that people need to have enough food and water to get by during a period when the rain and wind will prevent authorities from getting to them.
“We have pre-deployed and pre-staged, but we can’t actually get to that final point of care until conditions permit,” he said Friday during a White House briefing.
The National Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane warning covering all of South Florida, where local officials have ordered evacuations along the coast. In Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous, mandatory evacuations were issued for about 660,000 people, including for Miami Beach and Key Biscayne. It was the largest evacuation ordered in Miami-Dade history, said Carlos A. Gimenez, the county’s mayor.
Miami City Hall, an Art Deco building on Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove, an evacuation zone, was locked and mostly vacant on Friday. The only vehicle seen in a City Hall parking spot? A black Ford Expedition in the spot labeled for Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.
Many people ordered to leave Broward and Palm Beach counties were directed to public schools, which Scott has shuttered across the state so they can serve as shelters and staging areas for first responders. Many public schools across the state canceled classes, while colleges had also closed campuses and rescheduled football games.
Pompano Beach High School, which is just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and is normally home to the Golden Tornadoes, was transformed Friday into a haven for about 150 people seeking shelter from Irma. Several volunteers said they expected the school, one of about 20 facilities Broward County is using as shelters, to reach its capacity of 280 people by Saturday.
Those already packed into the school’s cafeteria had one thing in common: They were either unable or unwilling to leave the area, despite a mandatory evacuation order for several sections of the county, including anyone close to the nearby ocean. Only those who had registered starting at noon on Thursday were allowed into the school, and once capacity was reached, others who showed up were directed to venues with larger spaces.
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Three Broward County sheriff’s deputies were at the front door on Friday, inspecting all bags for weapons, drugs and alcohol. Two paramedics were assigned to the shelter in three shifts, and two will be in the building 24 hours a day starting Saturday morning, along with at least a half-dozen law enforcement officers. The men, women and children filing inside were greeted by several volunteers and county employees who will be working around the clock starting Saturday at 8 a.m.
For anyone who will read this please give us all prayers. I’m so worried about my family and friends. My InLaws live in a mobile home and have evacuated but they have many trees in their yard and anything could happen at this point. I’m praying for you all.
My good friend Mel our Crazy Mom is in the evacuation zone with her husband and children. They need prayers from everyone please…. Mel please stay safe!!
Please everyone just pray for all of us. This storm is going to reshape Florida 🙁