Hurricane Irma will batter Florida and 'devastate the United States,' officials warn
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 is likely to slam into its southern tip before tracking north across a heavily populated area.
"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," William "Brock" Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Friday at a news conference.
Officials in Georgia and the Carolinas - where heavy rains and flooding are expected early next week - declared emergencies Friday, 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.
The center said that Irma, which had maximum sustained winds near 155 mph and higher gusts Friday as it passed between the Central Bahamas and north coast of Cuba, was expected to remain a powerful Category 4 hurricane.
Local, state and federal officials have offered ominous warnings as the storm zeroed in on Florida, making it 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."
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 warned 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 185 miles out.
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, said Friday 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 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 Gimenez, the county's mayor.
Miami City Hall, an Art Deco building right on Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove, an evacuation zone, was locked and mostly vacant on Friday. The only City Hall parking spot that was occupied? 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 sits just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and is normally home to the Golden Tornadoes, was transformed Friday into a safe 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 a shelter, 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 Thursday were allowed into the school, and once capacity was reached, others who showed up were directed to venues with larger spaces.
Three Broward County Sheriffs deputies were at the front door 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 have been greeted by several volunteers and county employees who will be working around the clock starting at 8 a.m. Saturday.
They're staffing a facility that doesn't quite have all the comforts of home - there are two bathrooms and no showers, cots or WiFi - but there are a few. Two television sets were tuned to the Weather Channel, providing the latest news about Irma's approach - all of it bad. There also were nine microwave ovens, plugs for cellphones and computers and, eventually, a generator.
Many occupants came fully prepared. A a number of air mattresses, chaise lounges and sleeping bags were set up in neat rows throughout the cafeteria. Three free meals a day will be served.
Someone brought in stacks of books, and others played checkers, cards, watched TV, read or took naps. An elderly couple came in concerned about keeping their insulin refrigerated. They were quickly assured by a paramedic that the insulin would be stored in a cafeteria fridge and be available anytime.
Suzie and Renè Wilhelm were in Florida on vacation from the Netherlands, staying at a hotel a block from a nearby Fort Lauderdale beach. Renè, a Mercedes-Benz salesman, said they left Amsterdam for Orlando last Monday, not really aware of the huge storm gathering hundreds of miles away.
"We've been coming to Florida since 2000 - Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale - and we had no idea this was happening," Renè Wilhelm said. "We're used to snow, but not this."
They stayed in Orlando for a day, then drove south on Wednesday, at the time hoping that the storm would veer away from South Florida.
"We didn't know what to do," said Suzie Wilhelm, who works in health care. "As we were driving here, I thought, 'This is a stupid thing to do.' I called our travel agent in the Netherlands, and also the same company here, to see if they could get us out, but they never even called me back or answered my emails. The woman at our hotel tried to book us somewhere else, but everything was filled."
They tried one shelter, but were told there was no food and that they could not leave if they went in.
"It was terrifying, so we came here," she said. "You can come and go. People have been very nice to us."
Not far away, Bill and Jane Borum, both native Washingtonians and retirees, were reading to pass the hours. They live in a condo at the Bay Colony high-rise in Fort Lauderdale, just steps from the ocean, and left when an evacuation order was issued. They thought about driving north to get out of harm's way, but traffic was horribly jammed and "we really didn't have any place to go," said Jane Borum, who attended Alice Deal Junior High and Wilson High School in Northwest Washington "many years ago" and retired to South Florida with her husband.
"Our kids in Maryland wanted us to fly home, but we couldn't get on a flight, so now we're here," she said. "It's our first time in a shelter, and the last, I hope."
Some hit the road but did not want to go too far. Joseph "Tony" Vincent, 82, said he has seen many storms and planned to hit the road for Irma, but he was not heading far away from the Naples Mobile Home Park. He has weekend room reservations at a modest motel just outside the park, along the Tamiami Trail.
Vincent said that even if he had the money, he wouldn't leave his home state because of a hurricane.
"Hell, you'd be safer here than taking a car on those roads," he said. "You might be killed before you get to Atlanta."
Other Florida fixtures hunkered down. The Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens - otherwise known as Zoo Miami, which sprawls across more than 700 acres and has more than 3,000 animals - closed down Thursday but said it would not be moving its animals.
"We don't evacuate our animals since hurricanes can change direction at the last minute and you run the risk of evacuating to a more dangerous location," the zoo said in a statement. "Furthermore, the stress of moving the animals can be more dangerous than riding out the storm. The animals that are considered dangerous will stay in their secure night houses, which are made of poured concrete and welded metal."
When Hurricane Andrew struck, the zoo was hit hard. Tropical birds were missing, cages torn apart and animals traumatized - through, miraculously, most of the animals were unharmed.
Across the main arteries out of Florida, some trips took more than twice as long as normal. People who fled the state trekked into Georgia and South Carolina, and Atlanta's downtown was turned into a temporary home for many evacuees. In South Carolina, the attorney general's office reported more than 200 complaints from residents about price-gouging related to gasoline.
Authors Information: Leonard Shapiro retired from The Washington Post in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor and columnist. Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country. Patricia Sullivan covers government, politics and other regional issues in Arlington County and Alexandria. She worked in Illinois, Florida, Montana and California before joining the Post in November 2001.