Washington: 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 before the storm reaches the peninsula, the Florida Keys will experience its full force.
“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 Donald Trump and William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who have guaranteed all necessary federal resources.
Regardless of its track, all of Florida will likely experience damaging winds. After days of calm, ordinary summer weather, Miami residents woke Saturday 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. 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.”