MIAMI — The outer bands of Hurricane Irma lashed Florida on Saturday, with millions ordered to evacuate and high winds and tens of thousands of power outages already reported from a storm that threatened to ravage the state with destruction not seen in a generation.
More than 5 million people across Florida have been ordered to evacuate and thousands crammed into shelters. Gov. Rick Scott (R) sounded dire warnings about the storm, urging residents in evacuation zones to leave their homes immediately.
“Once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you,” Scott said at a news conference in Sarasota.
The eye of the storm is now expected to head up the state’s west coast, rather than the middle, so Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa will likely bear the brunt. But because of the size of the hurricane, Florida’s east coast remains in danger, including from storm surges that will easily overwhelm some areas. But before the storm reaches the peninsula, the Florida Keys will experience its full force.
The National Hurricane Center downgraded Irma to a Category 3 storm Saturday, saying in an advisory that it had maximum sustained winds estimated around 120 miles per hour. But the storm is expected to strengthen as it moves away from Cuba and toward the Florida Keys, near where its core is forecast Sunday morning. Irma will move along or near Florida’s southwest coast Sunday afternoon.
Regardless of its track, all of Florida will likely experience damaging winds, rains, flooding and possibly tornadoes. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for all of southern Florida and the Florida Keys until midnight Eastern Time.
The National Weather Service said southwestern Florida could see storm surges up to 15 feet if peak surge happens during high tide. A storm surge warning is in effect for much of the Florida peninsula.
“This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it,” Scott said.
Counties including Broward on the east coast have imposed curfews and at least 70 more shelters were opening across the state Saturday. At least 50,000 people are staying in 260 state shelters, Scott said. He implored nurses to volunteer throughout Florida; the state desperately needs 1,000 nurses in its special needs shelters.
By Saturday afternoon, storm conditions had swept into Miami, now a ghost metropolis. There was no traffic on typically-jammed roads and highways. Almost all stores appeared to be closed. By midday, dozens of people crowded Vicky Bakery on Coral Way, the one place for miles that was open. In downtown Miami, cranes spun like toys. A wind gust of 70 miles per hour was recorded at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Saturday afternoon.
At the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center, Fire Chief Dave Downey said that after the storm passes, his teams will deploy to the Florida Keys and to southwest Florida to assist with rescue efforts. The question, he said, “is how fast can we get into the Keys, how fast can we get into the west coast.” The likelihood that the storm will make a direct hit on the Keys, he said, “terrifies all of us.”
Emergency managers in Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, were forced by the track of the storm to abandon their Emergency Operations Center in Marathon, in the Middle Keys, and relocate to relatively high ground in Key Largo, at the northern end of the island chain. Downey said he feared that the storm could knock out the so-called Overseas Highway, which would hamper rescue efforts.
That would necessitate mobilizing by air and water. But he said his department’s helicopters had been moved ahead of the storm to Orlando, to keep them from being damaged.
He said he spoke Saturday to a counterpart in Marco Island, a small community south of Naples. “The people who haven’t evacuated, they know who they are and where they are.”
Downey described the triage of a first response — the fact that rescue teams will go looking for someone who has called 911 and then encounter five more people in need along the way.
“You hear the first person scream, you think that’s the worst. I’m more concerned about the people we haven’t heard from,” the chief said.
In Estero, on the west coast of Florida, thousands of people wrapped around the massive Germain Arena, which officials opened as a shelter Saturday and has a capacity of 7,000 to 8,000. At least six ambulances have responded to people who were overcome in the muggy, 90-degree heat. Troopers, the National Guard and local police sought out people in wheelchairs and moved them to the front of the line, said Lt. Greg Bueno, public information officer for the Florida Highway Patrol.
Leaning on a cane, Betty Sellers, 68, and her son, Doug, 49, got in line at 9:30 a.m. and were still 100 people away from the front doors. They had driven up to Estero from Naples, because “the shelters were mostly closed there,” she said.
Officials at the Collier County emergency operations center in Naples said 15,000 people have filled its shelters, but they are trying to expand space in each location to accommodate more people. Demand exceeded expectations as the forecast showed the area likely taking the full force of Irma’s impact.
The county said it will be difficult for it to house everyone who needs or wants to evacuate in shelters and urged people who can find shelter with friends or family to go there. Lee County manager Roger Desjarlais said Saturday afternoon that the county is sheltering 22,000 people. The two counties combined have a population of about 1 million.
Officials are also concerned that wind gusts will send water over the Herbert Hoover Dike that holds back Lake Okeechobee, which covers more than 700 square miles. Evacuations have been ordered for cities and towns on the south side of the lake in Hendry, Palm Beach and Glades counties.
Nearly 29,000 people have already lost power across the state as of Saturday afternoon. Florida Power and Light said 4.1 million people across the state could lose power as a result of the storm, and Scott said utility crews are standing by in Florida and surrounding states to get power back as soon as possible after the storm moves out.
The storm has already heavily damaged some Caribbean islands, killing at least 22 people. In St. Martin, 25 United States citizens were evacuated on a C130 military aircraft Friday from Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort. Resort officials said another evacuation is expected. Michael Joseph, president of the Red Cross in Antigua and Barbuda, said Barbuda is “uninhabitable” and in a “total blackout” with almost all of its infrastructure wiped out. A Marine expeditionary unit and a Navy dock landing ship arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and patients in need of medical care were evacuated from St. Thomas.
For some families, the hurricane has affected loved ones in the Caribbean and now Florida.
Since early Wednesday, when Hurricane Irma tore across the Caribbean island of St. Martin, Gretchen and Peter Bogacz have been hunkered down at the Hotel L’Esplanade with no power or running water, trying to find out if assistance was on the way. But with the airport seriously damaged, there was no way out.
Meanwhile, Irma was headed toward their 12-year-old daughter Isabella as well as Peter Bogacz’s parents, who planned to ride out the storm together at home in Sarasota, Fla.
The situation is overwhelming for Gretchen’s sister, Natalie Grinnell, who is urgently monitoring the forecasts from her home in Spartanburg, S.C.
“My worry for my loved ones is pervasive,” she wrote in an email to The Post.
In the United States, 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. William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 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.”
About 5.6 million people in Florida and 540,000 in Georgia have been ordered to evacuate. Airports throughout Florida and in Savannah, Ga., were closed. Disney World is closed Sunday and Monday, with resort hotels staying open.
More than 44,000 people were ordered evacuated in South Carolina.
In Pompano Beach on the southeast coast of Florida, winds were blowing to about 40 miles per hour Saturday afternoon. At a shelter inside Pompano Beach High School, video of Irma’s devastation in the Caribbean were constantly being aired on two big-screen TVs set up in the cafeteria, where 280 evacuees have sheltered in place. They ate a lunch of sausage pizza, canned corn, applesauce and milk or juice. Mayor Mark Fisher stopped by to thank people for evacuating to the shelter.
It is one of 20 set up by Broward County. Three of the shelters are pet-friendly, though not the one at the high school. Another is specifically for people with special medical needs.
Infants, parents and grandparents all crammed into an at-capacity emergency shelter at the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition. There were pets, cots, a few birds and wheelchairs — lots of wheelchairs. Two elderly people, one with diabetes already feeling fatigued, said they came with little food and no beds, so they’d be sleeping in their wheelchairs until the storm passes.
Long had a blunt message for those in the Florida Keys: “You put your life in your own hands by not evacuating,” he said on CNN. But some locals refused to budge.
“It’s going to be a fun ride,” said Jason Wasser, who had a few drinks at Don’s Place. “All of our friends are here, our family, why bother leaving? We’re all going to die eventually, so why not have a good time with it?”
In Miami, some also stayed put. On Friday night, before Irma was expected to torpedo through the city, South Beach was deserted, shelters were overflowing and last-minute preparations were underway.
But it wouldn’t be Miami if the nightlife completely died with the storm.
Locals packed bars in Coconut Grove, drinking and watching the U.S. Open and the Miami Marlins game. There was a 45-minute wait for a table at Happy Wine. The restaurant alerted people that it was business as usual by writing “We’re Open” in big red letters on the plywood that covered its windows.
And people seemed to get the message. Bartender Edgar Escorche said he had opened at least 150 bottles of wine Friday evening. Parking was hard to find near the small restaurant.
At Happy Wine, Julio Blanco, a Miami Beach police officer, said he’s been working around the clock this past week while prepping his own condo. He isn’t working during the storm, but he expects to have to return to help with recovery.
But before he clocks back in, he said he just wants to enjoy a bottle of wine with his wife.
“This is my way to thank and reward myself,” Blanco said. “And it’s such a daunting storm; we don’t know what’s going to happen. At least tonight, I am giving a little to myself and my wife.”
Achenbach and Stein reported from Miami and Zezima from Washington. Patricia Sullivan in Estero, Scott Unger in Key West, Leonard Shapiro in Pompano Beach, Lori Rozsa in Gainesville and Rachelle Krygier in Caracas, contributed to the report. Lori Aratani, Mark Berman, Thomas M. Gibbons-Neff, Matea Gold, Jason Samenow and Sarah Larimer in Washington contributed reporting.