Like a slow moving stalker in a horror movie, Hurricane Irma is now less than 400 miles from Miami and making steady progress. The exceptionally-powerful storm has triggered a mass exodus from Florida, what may wind up being one of the largest evacuations in US history.
Irma, now downgraded to a still-very-powerful Category 4 storm (it could intensify to a Category 5 again in the next few days), is currently located about 270 miles east of Caibarien, Cuba. It’s moving in a west-northwest direction at a leisurely pace of 14 miles per hour (22 km/h). Forecasters say the storm will move through the north coast of Cuba and central Bahamas later today and into tomorrow, arriving near the Florida Keys and the southern Florida Peninsula by Sunday morning.
The storm, which has killed at least 19 in the Caribbean, may have been demoted a notch, but it’s still deadly dangerous. Sustained winds are being clocked at 150 mph (240 km/h), and with higher gusts. Fluctuations in Irma’s strength are possible, but the storm is expected to remain at least a Category 4 by the time it reaches Florida in about 36 hours. Irma is joined by hurricane Jose to the east, now a dangerous Category four storm itself. As Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach pointed out in a tweet earlier today, this is the first time in recorded history that two 150-plus mph hurricanes have been recorded in the Atlantic at the same time.
In Florida, storm surge warnings have been extended from Jupiter Inlet northward to Sebastian Inlet and from Bonita Beach northward to Venice. Stretches in Southwest Florida between Captiva and Cape Sable can expect storm surges as high as six to 12 feet. Many other outlying areas are bracing for waters as high as three to ten feet. President Trump’s resort, Mar-a-Lago, is at risk of flooding.
“The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast in areas of onshore winds, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves,” warned NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in a public advisory. “Surge-related flooding depends on the relative timing of the surge and the tidal cycle, and can vary greatly over short distances.”
The Bahamas, which could take a direct hit, is bracing for 15 to 10 foot storm surges, while the Turks and Caicos Islands are preparing for equally high rises in water level.
At a news conference held earlier today, Florida Governor Rick Scott told people to flee from mandatory evacuation zones immediately, and he didn’t mince words. “We cannot save you when the storm starts,” he said. “So, if you are in an evacuation zone and you need help, you need to tell us now.”
Scott’s government has directed all public schools, colleges, and universities to close through Monday (at least) to make them available as emergency shelters, and as places from which recovery efforts can be staged. Over 7,000 national guard members have been dispatched, and they’ll likely be busy in the coming days with the many expected rescue efforts. Officials are worried that the storm could produce result in large swaths of areas becoming uninhabitable for weeks, if not months.
A mass exodus is currently underway in Florida, one that’s poised to go down as the largest evacuation in US history. The Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach areas, where mandatory evacuation orders are in place, are home to a combined 6 million people. Gov. Scott said Floridians are “facing a life-threatening storm” and “every family must prepare to evacuate.”
Thousands of cars are now clogging roads, and motorists are clamoring for fuel. Some gas stations are running out, and Florida Highway Patrol is having to escort fuel tankers such that they can reach resupply gas stations. Some of the more heavily traveled throughways include Interstates 95, 75, and the Florida Turnpike.
Some Florida residents and tourists have opted to fly out, creating heavy volumes of prospective travellers at airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and elsewhere. Both American Airlines and United Airlines are waiving change fees for all flyers affected by Irma.
Miami has turned into a veritable ghost town, with many having left the city or having relocated to shelters. The Miami Herald is reporting that nearly 6,000 Miami residents have already evacuated themselves to shelters.
There is so much happening right now that it’s hard to keep up. This is obviously a developing story, and Gizmodo will do its best to keep you up to speed on what’s happening over the course of the next few hours and days.