Florida Officials Warn Irma Will Be 'Storm Wider Than the State'
Florida residents were racing to complete final preparations on Friday as Hurricane Irma, slightly weakened from its peak but still packing enormous destructive power, cast a dark shadow over the southern half of the Sunshine State.
In a filmed message to the nation, Donald Trump called Irma “a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential”.
After leaving a trail of wreckage and claiming at least 21 lives during its four-day rampage across the Caribbean, Irma was forecast to take a significant turn north and strike one of the most populous areas of the US in the early hours of Sunday.
About seven million people lay directly in the path of the monster storm in South Florida and further north to Orlando and with winds of 150mph or greater spreading more than 70 miles from its center, officials warned that the whole of Florida was in the danger zone.
“The storm is wider than the state,” Rick Scott, the Florida governor, warned at a morning briefing. “The majority of Florida will have major hurricane impacts, with deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds. We are running out of time. The storm is almost here, a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.”
In the UK, the Foreign Office launched an emergency hotline for Britons affected by the storm in the Caribbean or US, and issued travel advice urging tourists to evacuate south Florida if possible and seek advice from their travel companies.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami reinforced Scott’s dire warnings in its late-morning advisory.
“There is the danger of life threatening storm surge inundation in southern Florida and the Florida Keys in the next 36 hours,” wrote Lixion Avila, a senior NHC specialist. “In particular, the threat of significant storm surge flooding along the south-west coast of Florida has increased and 6ft to 12ft of inundation above ground level is possible. Everyone in these areas should take all actions to protect life and property.”
The NHC noted that sustained winds had dropped below the 185mph peak that tore apart Caribbean islands including Barbuda, St Martin, Anguilla and the US and British Virgin Islands, but predicted the storm would still hit Florida as a strong category 4 hurricane.
Close to a million Floridians in low-lying and coastal areas were under a mandatory evacuation order and several major highways leading north, towards Georgia and Alabama, were choked with traffic.
Scott requested gas suppliers to increase deliveries and remain open as long as possible. Resupply tankers received police escorts in some areas but many gas stations were closed.
Those who could not leave filled shelters, ready to ride out the storm. At the White House on Friday afternoon, homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser Thomas Bossert said warnings to evacuate were “not a tough love message, it’s just a message of clarity and honesty.
“At some point, people are going to be on their own, so to speak, for a period of time during which the flooding and raining and the wind bear down on them, and they need to be prepared if they are in that path and haven’t taken some action to get themselves in a less dangerous position.”
Bossert added: “Let’s hope there is no hurricane amnesia but I would start by saying there are some people, probably some 20% of the population, that might not remember, might not have gone through the last big hurricane in Florida ... If you haven’t experienced it, take it seriously and ask those who have.”
One major concern was a possible breach of an ageing dike on Lake Okeechobee, the 730 sq-mile lake in central Florida that supplies fresh water to the south of the state. Scott said the US army corps of engineers had assured him the dike was solid but that winds would push water over the top. As a precaution, he said, he had ordered the evacuation of nearby communities.
All 7,000 members of Florida’s national guard were activated and utility companies said they had positioned emergency crews around the state to move quickly and work on restoring power that they warned in some areas could be out for weeks.
“We keep talking about the big one: when is it coming, when is it coming?” said Roman Gastesi, administrator of Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys archipelago stretching 100 miles off the southern coast. “This, folks, is the big one.”
In a series of tweets, Trump said the full resources of the US government and Federal Emergency Management Agency were ready. In his video statement, the president said: “When the time comes, we will restore, recover and rebuild together as Americans. America stands united and I mean united.”
Bossert said the White House was thankful that Congress passed a $15.3bn disaster aid package and insisted the government could absorb the one-two punch of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Bossert also said officials were reconsidering an executive order last month that rolled back Barack Obama’s directive for flood plain buildings to adhere to tighter standards.
The Department of Homeland Security said it would suspend non-criminal immigration enforcement operations for the duration of the storm.
In Miami, there was an eerie calm under a pristine sky. The most visible signs of the pending threat were empty gas stations, pumps enclosed in yellow tape, giving them the air of a police crime scene.
Those outlets that remained open were subject to long lines of cars. Mary Schaunaman, 56, was filling up nine gas canisters, each holding five litres, sufficient she said to keep a generator at her home going for a week.
“I’m anxious, nervous,” she said. “Extremely. It’s just the unknown of what’s coming.”
Supermarkets were preparing to shut their doors, with bottled water, torches and fresh food running out. Advice to residents was to lay in three to five days’ supply of food, water and petrol.
Holidaymakers were turned into refugees overnight. Norman McClain, 31, from Nashville, Tennessee, cut short a cruise aboard the Enchantment of the Seas that had been due to visit the Bahamas and Key West.
“It could be worse. I’m trying to keep optimistic,” he said.
Governor Scott warned that the window of opportunity to get to safety was closing fast.
“I’m a dad, I’m a grandfather, I love my family and can’t imagine life without them,” he said. “Do not put yourself or your family’s lives at risk. If you’ve been ordered to evacuate, please go. Today is the day to do the right thing for your family to get inland to safety.
“We will make it through this together.”