By Leonard Shapiro, Mark Berman and Katie Zezima
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 and is likely to slam into the state’s southern tip before tracking north across a heavily populated area.
The track of the storm, however, shifted overnight: The eye of the storm is now expected to head up the state’s west coast, rather than the middle. Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa are now expected to bear the brunt of the storm. But before the storm reaches the peninsula, the Florida Keys will experience its full force.
“This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, said at a news conference in Sarasota Saturday morning.
Scott implored people living in evacuation zones to leave their homes, telling people on in the southwest part of the state to leave their homes by noon for a shelter or elsewhere.
“Once the storm starts law enforcement cannot save you,” he said.
Scott said there are more than 260 shelters open statewide housing at least 50,000 people; at least 70 additional shelters are expected to open today. He said the state desperately needs about 1,000 nurses to volunteer in its special needs shelters. Scott said he has spoken with President Donald Trump and William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who have guaranteed all necessary federal resources.
Regardless of its track, all of Florida will likely experience damaging winds. After days of calm, ordinary summer weather, Miami residents woke Saturday to powerful wind gusts and bouts of torrential rain before dawn, followed by calm conditions again under low, gray clouds. Irma’s outermost bands appear to have arrived. With the storm still more than 200 miles away, Miami International Airport clocked a wind gust of 57 mph just after 7:30 a.m. Saturday. Nearly 25,000 people have already lost power across the state as of Saturday morning.
“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,” Long said Friday at a news conference.
Officials in Georgia and the Carolinas - where heavy rains and flooding are expected early next week - have declared emergencies, 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.
As of 5 a.m. Saturday, Irma had maximum sustained winds near 155 mph and higher gusts as it moved over Cuba’s Camaguey Archipelago as a Category 4 storm, the hurricane center said.
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. 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.”
About 5.6 million people in Florida and 540,000 in Georgia have been ordered to evacuate.
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.”
Scott 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 warning 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 195 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, on Friday said 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 National Hurricane 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 on Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove, an evacuation zone, was locked and mostly vacant on Friday. The only vehicle seen in a City Hall parking spot? 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 is just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and is normally home to the Golden Tornadoes, was transformed Friday into a 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 shelters, 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 on 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 sheriff’s deputies were at the front door on 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 were greeted by several volunteers and county employees who will be working around the clock starting Saturday at 8 a.m.
They’re staffing a facility that does not 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, with a number of air mattresses, chaise longues and sleeping bags 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 any time.
Suzie and Renè Wilhelm were in Florida on vacation from the Netherlands. They were staying at a hotel a block from a nearby Fort Lauderdale beach. Renè Wilhelm, 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,” he 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.
“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 would not 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.”
Some people chose to stay where they were.
Locals packed bars on Friday night in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, drinking and watching the U.S. Open and the Miami Marlins game. At Happy Wine in the Grove there was a 45-minute wait for a table after 9 p.m.
The restaurant informed people that it was business as usual by writing “We’re Open” in big red letters on the plywood that covered its windows. Bartender Edgar Escorche said he had opened at least 150 bottles of wine Friday evening. Parking was even hard to find around the small restaurant.
“It’s been surprising to see all the people going out in the night before the storm,” he said. “We didn’t expect it to be this crowded. I guess it’s the calm before the storm.”
Alexandra Missagia, 47, said she had been working all day prepping her home for the storm, and wanted one night out before she was cooped up during a storm with a still unknown impact on Miami.
“We’ve been working our [butts] off for three days, we just want to have fun,” Missagia said.
Hazel Lamond, 43, said she couldn’t bear to stay home and listen to the news another night.
“I definitely don’t want to watch the weather channel anymore,” Lamond said.
Flanigan’s Seafood Bar & Grill, a South Florida institution, is known for staying open through holidays and inclement weather. Jimmy Flanigan, the president and CEO of the regional chain, said he decided kept all 23 of his South Florida locations open Friday. They will close Saturday, but Flanigan vowed to reopen as soon as possible.
Business was flush for him on Friday in Coconut Grove, where his restaurant served more than 2,500 meals and drinks.
“All the restaurants slammed and they’re having to stop taking names now,” Flanigan said. “We stay open as long as we possibly can.”
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 on 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 - although, 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.