Braced for impact
MIAMI Hurricane Irma has trained its sights on Florida, and officials are warning more than 5 million people that time is running out to evacuate ahead of the deadly hurricane as it follows a path that could take it from one end of the state to the other.
Yesterday evening, Irma had moved from a slightly weakened Category 4 storm with winds of 250kmh, back up to Category 5 and was expected to come ashore near Key West today.
Forecasters had adjusted the storm’s potential track more towards the west coast of Florida, away from the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, meaning ‘‘a less costly, a less deadly storm’’, University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said.
Nevertheless, forecasters have warned that its hurricane-force winds are so wide they could reach from coast to coast, testing the United States’ third-largest state, which has undergone rapid development and more stringent hurricane-proof building codes in the last decade or so.
‘‘This is a storm that will kill you if you don’t get out of the way,’’ National Hurricane Centre meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said. ‘‘Everybody’s going to feel this one.’’
Fuel shortages and gridlock have plagued the evacuations in Florida, turning normally simple trips into tests of will.
‘‘We’re getting out of this state,’’ said Manny Zuniga, who left his home in Miami on Friday to avoid the gridlock. ‘‘Irma is going to take all of Florida.’’
Despite driving overnight, it still took him 12 hours to reach Orlando – a trip that normally takes four hours. From there, he and his wife, two children, two dogs and a ferret were headed to Arkansas.
In one of the country’s largest evacuations, about 5.6 million people in Florida – more than onequarter of the state’s population – have been ordered to evacuate, and another 540,000 have been told to leave the Georgia coast.
Authorities have opened hundreds of shelters for people who cannot leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta are filling up with evacuees.
‘‘If you are planning to leave and do not leave tonight, you will have to ride out this extremely dangerous storm at your own risk,’’ Florida Governor Rick Scott said.
Tony Marcellus racked his brain to figure out a way to get his 67-year-old mother and 85-year-old grandfather out of their home five blocks from the ocean in West Palm Beach. He lives nearly 1000km away, in Atlanta.
He checked flights but found nothing, and rental cars were booked out, so he settled on a modern method of evacuation. He hired an Uber car to pick them up and drive them 270km to Orlando, where he met them to take them to Atlanta. He gave the driver a nice tip.
‘‘I have peace of mind now,’’ said Marcellus’s mother, Celine Jean. ‘‘I’ve been worried sick for days.’’
Several small, poor communi- ties around Lake Okeechobee in the south-central part of Florida were added to the evacuation list because the lake may overflow. Many people in the area said they wouldn’t leave because they either had no transportation or nowhere to go.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he planned for enough shelter space to hold 100,000 people before the storm arrived, although most shelters were only beginning to fill yesterday.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992 REUTERS revealed how lax building codes had become in the country’s most storm-prone state, and Florida began requiring sturdier construction.
Experts say the monstrously strong Irma could be the most serious test of Florida’s stormworthiness since then.
Andrew razed Miami’s suburbs with winds topping 265kmh, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage totalled US$26 billion in Florida’s most populous areas. At least 40 people were killed across the state.
CoreLogic, a consultant to insurers, estimated that almost 8.5 million Florida homes or commercial properties were at extreme, very high or high risk of wind damage from Irma.
Police in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Davie said a 57-year-old man who had been hired to install hurricane shutters died after falling about five metres from a ladder and hitting his head on a pool deck.
Forecasters are predicting a storm surge of 2m to 3m above ground level along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Florida Keys. As much as 30 centimetres of rain could fall. AP
Hurricane Irma passes the eastern end of Cuba en route to Florida in this Nasa satellite image.
Vehicles are backed up along the northbound lanes of Interstate 75 in Florida as residents flee. Some have gone as far as Atlanta.