Communities in southern Florida are preparing for the potentially catastrophic effects of Hurricane Irma as one of the most powerful storms the Atlantic has ever seen smashed its way through the Caribbean on its way towards the US coast.
As Irma travelled, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake, officials in several South Florida counties began to prepare for the potential landfall of a record-setting hurricane.
Residents in parts of the Miami metro area are under mandatory orders to leave their homes, as the storm approaches with potentially catastrophic winds.
Mayors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties issued mandatory evacuation orders starting on Thursday morning for barrier islands and low-lying mainland areas in the metro area of 6 million, where forecasters predicted the hurricane with winds of 180 mph (290 kph) could strike by early Sunday.
Florida Governor Rick Scott has urged people to evacuate if asked to do so by local officials.
After hitting the US and British Virgin Islands on Wednesday, Irma headed toward the US territory Puerto Rico, and is expected to bring with it maximum sustained winds reaching 185 miles per hour.
Before hitting those islands, the storm yielded devastating results as it slammed Barbuda before moving over Saint Martin and Anguilla. The storm has already been blamed for at least $150m (£115m) in damages in Antigua and Barbuda, which lost all contact with the outside world during the storm.
The northernmost island, Barbuda, home to roughly 1,700 people, was “totally demolished”, with 90 per cent of all dwellings there levelled, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
“This rebuilding initiative will take years,” Mr Brown said after reviewing the damage. He added that one person was confirmed killed on Barbuda. A second storm-related fatality, that of a surfer, was reported on Barbados and the French government said at least two people were killed in Caribbean island territories of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.
While Irma’s future path isn’t perfectly clear at this point, projections show an increasing likelihood of it hitting south-eastern Florida near Miami, and bringing potentially deadly winds to much of the southern portion of that American peninsula.
Irma is expected to continue westward over the next several days. Changing variables in the weather could also lead the hurricane to other portions of the continental United States. Depending on how the next few days shape up, the Carolinas could also see strong winds as Irma makes its way up north along the eastern seaboard.
“There is an increasing chance of seeing some impacts from Irma in the Florida Peninsula and the Florida Keys later this week and this weekend,” the National Hurricane Centre said.
Florida Governor Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for all 67 of the state’s counties, eyeing what is projected to be a Category 4 hurricane if Irma makes landfall on his state.
“This storm has the potential to devastate our state, and we have to take it seriously,” Mr Scott said on Wednesday during a news briefing.
Mr Scott urged Floridians to prepare sooner rather than later, and said that markets should be restocking their shelves with vital supplies like water and non-perishables after reports surfaced indicating that shelves were empty. Mr Scott also made a call for volunteers, saying that “volunteers make a huge difference in these crises”.
“We can rebuild your home, but we cannot rebuild your life,” Mr Scott said, urging residents to leave if they can and need to. “There’s absolutely no reason for anyone not to evacuate if you have the means to do so.”
The administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) echoed that concern, saying that the storm is so strong that even the most prepared American city would encounter major damages.
“No community in America is prepared to be hit by a category four or five hurricane,” Brock Long, the Fema administrator, said on CNN. He later noted that the agency was prepared to help with any fallout from Irma, in spite of news reports that the agency was running out of money after dealing with the devastation in Houston last week.
Florida plans on asking 6,000 National Guard members to report for duty on Friday, and has already called up 1,000 members. Emergency responders will have access to at least 13 helicopters, and more than 1,000 high water tactical vehicles, Mr Scott said. Volunteers are ready with the capacity to serve as many as 35,000 meals a day following the storm.
Counties that are most likely to be hit are taking matters further.
In Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez has signed a declaration of emergency, and ordered the evacuation of residents with disabilities. Depending on future forecasts, other evacuations may be ordered as well. Mr Gimenez also closed all county offices and schools.
In nearby Broward County, 43 shelters were opened that could house as many as 33,000 people starting on Thursday. In Monroe County, the home of the popular tourist destination Key West, mandatory evacuations were issued for visitors and residents.
“It looks like it could be something that will be not good. Believe me, not good,” President Donald Trump, who owns a golf resort just north of Miami, said on Wednesday in the Oval Office.
With news of the potentially catastrophic storm landfall, Floridians rushed to prepare themselves for the incoming storm, and posted pictures on social media showing long lines to fuel up vehicles, and empty shelves in markets where residents had rushed to stock up on supplies.
The potentially life-threatening winds are expected to hit Florida on Saturday. Two other hurricanes formed on Wednesday. Katia in the Gulf of Mexico posed no threat to the United States, according to US forecasters, although Caribbean islands could again see major damage. Hurricane Jose in the open Atlantic, about 1,000 miles east of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles islands, could also eventually threaten the US mainland.
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