By Lizette Alvarez and Marc Santora
MIAMI – As Hurricane Irma threatened to engulf virtually the entire state of Florida in deadly winds, driving rain and surging seas, the largest evacuation in the state's history saw hundreds of thousands of people scrambling into crowded county shelters and jamming highways as they fled north from the storm.
With the clock ticking, some counties issued curfews for Saturday, and more shelters were opened to absorb the crush of people seeking cover from one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit Florida.
Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, described Hurricane Irma as "a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or some of the southeastern states."
Eric Silagy, chief executive of Florida Power and Light Co., said in a news conference that power losses were expected to affect 4.1 million customers, or 9 million people in the state. He said that every part of Florida would be affected and that people could lose power for an extended period, possibly weeks. The number of customers affected in the state could be the largest ever.
Airports and airlines raced to get flights off the ground Friday. Airport parking garages in Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale were full, and officials warned people of long lines and disrupted flights. At least 875 arriving and departing flights had been canceled by midday at those airports.
There was one bit of good news: Gas prices have stabilized, mainly because Florida declared a state of emergency, which restricted abusive price increases. Georgia, too, declared a state of emergency.
Hurricane Irma stands apart in one way from other storms, including Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that in 1992 devastated south Miami-Dade County: It is huge. Florida, surrounded by water on three sides, is only about 140 miles wide. The storm stretches over 300 miles. Every part of the state is expected to feel its wrath.
And for all the warnings to evacuate, the time to flee was quickly narrowing.
"It's limited gas, and overcrowded exit paths," said Pete DiMaria, fire chief of Naples. "The decision to evacuate and move upstate had to be done a few days ago."
Packing 155-mph winds, the storm is strong enough to tear roofs off buildings and snap trees and power poles. The storm might drop as much as 20 inches of rain in some areas. But it is the expected storm surge that most frightens officials across the state. Several counties expanded their evacuation orders to cover more ground, anticipating surges in some places as high as 12 feet if the storm hits at high tide.
Mayor Philip Levine of Miami Beach made one request to his city's residents and visitors: "I beg them please leave Miami Beach; you don't want to be here."
"This hurricane is a nuclear hurricane," he added. "It has so much power."
Irma has already flattened a chain of Caribbean islands, including Anguilla, Barbuda and the U.S. Virgin Islands, killing at least 20 people. In the eastern Caribbean, residents in Barbuda and St. Martin, islands that suffered extensive damage from Irma, wearily prepared for Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm that could hit those islands within the next two days.
But while those islands braced for more destruction, Jose, for now, does not pose much of a threat to the U.S. mainland.
Many gas stations around Miami have been out of fuel for days, complicating evacuation plans, and, in a city known for flash, bottled water has become the hottest commodity. Amid mounting alarm, Miami took on the feel of a ghost town. Roads and highways were largely clear, at least in South Florida, where most people were beginning to hunker down. Traffic jams had shifted farther north. Restaurants and nightclubs were closed. While the sun was still shining, the beaches were empty. The thump of Latin music on South Beach was replaced with the whir of mechanical saws as workers scrambled to cover windows with plywood.
Defiant messages were scrawled on many storefronts, addressing the storm personally.
"You Don't Scare Us," wrote a group of students from the University of Miami.
But all evidence suggested otherwise. Even for the holdouts who refused to leave low-lying and coastal areas from Key West to North Florida, there was dread – both for the storm and for what are likely to be painful times afterward, when many expect to have no power, water or food for days.
"It's gonna be worse than Andrew, and Andrew was the worst one ever to hit Florida," said Rob Davis, owner of two small hotels just off Ocean Drive who said he was not leaving.
The evacuation was called the largest in Florida history, but many, after agonizing deliberations, decided to stay put.
Just off Old Cutler Road in southwest Miami, Alberto Valdes estimated that he was half a block from the shore of Biscayne Bay. But despite pleas from his neighbors – including a broadcast reporter who had covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew – nothing could convince him to abandon his one-story home.
"How can you abandon your stuff?" the 63-year-old New Jersey native asked, gesturing to the home he has owned for 20 years. "You work so hard to have it, and then walk away? It's not an easy decision."
He ticked off the preparations: the door already barricaded behind aluminum shutters, a generator, food, water, the furniture brought inside and tied down. If the storm surge gets too close, Valdes said, he would leave in his red truck or on an inflatable raft. "I don't foresee anything happening," Valdes said. But, he acknowledged, "it's a bad one."
Others in battle-tested Florida were taking no chances. Some had flown out days ago, or braved countless hours of traffic to go north, anywhere north.
The traffic of Irma escapees stretched up to South Carolina, with minivans and pickup trucks packed with people, pets, bedding and even furniture crawling north up I-95. "We left at 4 in the morning; as far as we've gone, it's been bumper to bumper," said Linda Caldwell as she idled at a gas station in Ridgeland, South Carolina. The 259-mile journey to that point from her home in Daytona Beach, she said, had taken 12 hours. Her destination was Roanoke, Virginia.
A family from New Jersey who had been on their way to Disney World conferred about what to do. The theme park was closing Saturday. They turned around and headed to Busch Gardens in Virginia.
On Miami Beach, as with every other evacuation zone, mandatory is not really mandatory. People are not forced to leave, if they do not want to go.
"We let them know there will be no police or fire responding to you when the winds rise above 39 miles per hour," said Elpido Garcia, a Miami Beach police officer.
In Hollywood, Isaak Kaspler, 80, and his wife, Alexandra, 78, both Holocaust survivors, decided to stay put in their beachside building. They even invited friends over. His daughter pleaded and commanded them to leave but they said no.
"We got shutters here and we'll close up the shutters," Isaak Kaspler said. "We got water. We got a radio." He added, "I feel we'll be OK here."
In Naples, in the Golden Gate Estates neighborhood, some of the few homeowners who remained were having second thoughts. Russell Spokish said that he had made the decision to stay but that other family members were starting to panic after hearing news reports.
"I think we're safe here," Spokish said. Referring to forecasts that show Irma moving straight up the state, he added, "It seems if you leave, the hurricane follows you wherever you go."
At the Betsy Hotel in South Beach, guests were allowed to remain, but they were scared.
"What can we do?" said a woman who gave her name as Sonya and was visiting with her husband from Germany. "In Germany we don't have situations like this. My sister back home is very scared. She keeps asking, 'Are you all right? Is the storm there yet?'"