By Joel Achenbach and Mark Berman
MIAMI - Hurricane Irma’s deadly fury threatened to swamp low-laying islands of the Bahamas with a possible 20-foot storm Friday as the monster storm moved toward Florida’s doorstep packing the potential to ravage the state with destruction not seen in a generation.
The window to escape the path of Irma in Florida was rapidly closing. Forecasters said Irma - now about 500 miles southeast of Miami - could make landfall early Sunday somewhere in the wide band between densely populated Atlantic coast and the 120-mile string of islands from Key Largo to Key West, before veering to the north possibly toward more population centers up the Eastern Seaboard.
“This storm has the potential to catastrophically devastate our state,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday. Earlier, he implored people to evacuate. “If you live in any evacuation zones and you’re still at home, leave.”
Fleeing to safer ground was not an option for many in the Caribbean, where Irma had claimed at least 11 lives and had the prime minister of tiny Barbuda grasping for a word to describe the devastation. The island, said Gaston Browne, was now “rubble.” France’s minister for overseas territories, Annick Girardin, described “scenes of pillaging” on St. Martin as looters cleaned out stores and roamed the streets in search of food and water.
Irma’s maximum sustained winds subsided slightly to about 155 mph. The difference, however, meant little. The hurricane center described Irma as “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm whose massive punch included surging seas.
A swell of up to 20 feet above high tide was expected in the Turks and Caicos and Bahamas - enough to cover huge portions of an archipelago where the highest point is just over 200 feet above sea level. And another powerful hurricane was following in Irma’s wake.
Hurricane Jose, now packing winds of 125 mph as a Category 3 storm, was expected to bring up to 10 inches of rain and “life-threatening flooding” to islands already left reeling by Irma, including Barbuda to Anguilla, the hurricane center said.
In Florida, the crush to leave had millions of people on the move. Highways were jammed, gas was scarce, airports were packed deluged and mandatory evacuations began to roll out as the first official hurricane watches were issued for the region, which could face destruction not seen since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Miami-Dade County ordered some mandatory evacuations, including for Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, as well as for areas in the southern half of the county that are not protected by barrier islands.”EVACUATE Miami Beach!” Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine tweeted, later noting in a news release that once winds top 40 mph, first responders will no longer be dispatched on rescue missions here.
Other evacuation zones were in place across much of South Florida. States of emergency also were declared in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina in anticipation of Irma’s path early next week.
Scott, the Florida governor, ordered that all state offices, public schools, state colleges and state universities be shut down from Friday through Monday “to ensure we have every space available for sheltering and staging.”
Still, it was unclear where Irma will make landfall.
“The wild card here is the turn. Anytime a hurricane makes a turn, it introduces uncertainty,” Mark DeMaria, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told The Washington Post in the center’s headquarters in west Miami-Dade County.
DeMaria noted that the computer models have fluctuated modestly, with adjustments in the consensus track of 50 miles or so every day. “But 50 miles onshore versus right of the coast makes a huge difference in impact,” he said.
The combination of Florida’s geography, the pattern of urban settlement in narrow bands along the coasts and the projected northerly path of the hurricane presents a particularly ominous picture.
“This is a large storm coming from the south,” said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the hurricane center. “That’s the worst-case scenario, because it takes in the entire Gold Coast population, and you have the greatest impact from storm surge from that direction.”
At the National Hotel on Miami Beach, a manager announced Thursday in four languages - English, Spanish, Portuguese and French - that guests needed to evacuate because of a city order. At the front desk, guests were given a sheet listing the locations of emergency shelters, none of which were likely to be as nice as the beachfront Art Deco hotel, which was restored a few years ago.
“This morning as I walked to work, I could see the things that could become projectiles,” said Natalya Garus, 35, lead concierge at the National. “Street signs. Coconuts. All the trash cans. Smoking stations. All the decorations.”
As she spoke, workers used a ladder to dismantle a decorative light fixture hanging over the hotel entrance.
Ruben Vandebosch, 28, and Wim Marten, 26, both of Belgium, and Jim Van Es, 24, of the Netherlands, said their plan is to drive to Atlanta.
“Atlanta has a nice ring to it,” Vandebosch said. “It sounds cool.”
Among those evacuating: Forty dogs from the Miami-Dade County animal shelter. They’re being flown to New York on a private plane owned by a dog lover named Georgina Bloomberg, according to Lauree Simmons, president and founder of the Big Dog Rescue shelter in Loxahatchee, Fla.
Big Dog staff went to Houston after Hurricane Harvey, rescuing 60 dogs from the floodwaters. Those dogs are awaiting adoption at the no-kill shelter. Simmons’ 33-acre rescue center has 457 dogs and puppies living in air-conditioned bunkhouses. Staff members were working frenetically Thursday packing up the contents of offices trailers. The dog bunkhouses, meanwhile, are fitted with hurricane impact glass built to withstand 200-mile-an-hour winds, Simmons said.
“The dogs will be very comfortable,” she said. “We’ll stay here with them through the storm and just keep hoping for the best.”
Popular shopping and dining areas of Fort Lauderdale, north of Miami, were nearly completely empty, the businesses buttoned up with metal curtains and new plywood protecting their front windows.
At the Coral Ridge Yacht Club on the Intracoastal Waterway, General Manager Jay Wallace and Greg Bennett, the club’s president, were walking up and down its docks making sure all the vessels, including some 90- and 100-footers valued at $2 million or more, were securely tied down. The club decided Tuesday to cease regular operations - meetings, lunch, dinner and a popular Wednesday happy hour - so that many employees would have time to evacuate.
“Just making sure everything is OK,” Wallace said. “We’re hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. You have to.”
Less than a mile away, Fort Lauderdale’s mostly spotless sandy beaches were virtually deserted, despite the green flags attached to all its lifeguard stands indicating “low hazard” for anyone wanting to take a dip in the ocean. The water was dead calm, not a wave in sight, and the shimmering sand was desolate on a postcard 90-degree day.
At a Costco in Naples, in southwest Florida, almost every morning shopper left the store with a flat or two of bottled water. At Costco’s gas station, vehicles jammed the six lanes for fuel. Several customers said the 24 cars waiting at 11 a.m. were nothing compared with the lines during the past two days. Some customers were on their third or fourth gas station seeking to fill up.
“As soon as they said you should consider evacuating, things got way worse,” said Michelle Anderson, who was waiting for gas in her Volvo. “I’m from Southern California, where earthquakes get you at random, so the fact that you have the ability to prepare for this is pretty awesome.”
Vicki Sargent, a Florida resident since 2003, lives in an RV park in Venice and had driven miles in search of gas Thursday. She said she has to ride out the storm because she takes care of about 70 units owned by people gone for the summer. She won’t stay in her own trailer, though.
“Only a fool would do that,” she said, saying she’ll stay with a friend. “I’m more worried about flooding than the hurricane. We have had rain and were about at saturation point.”
Tatiana Wood, 33, a waitress at a restaurant in Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road Mall, said she has a friend of a friend who lives in Oklahoma, but she was unclear of the distance or whether she would try to get there.
“If you try to escape, you may lose money,” Wood said. “If you stay, you might lose your life.”
Berman reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Patricia Sullivan in Naples, Fla., Kimberly Kindy in Orlando, Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach County, Dustin Waters in Charleston, S.C., and Leonard Shapiro and Perry Stein in Fort Lauderdale and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.