Irma: Florida faces tornadoes and storm surges as hurricane closes in - yet some refuse to leave

In eastern Florida, many are choosing to take a chance and weather out the storm

Clark Mindock
Miami
Sunday 10 September 2017 04:48
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Plane captures aerial view of Hurricane Irma as it heads towards the United States

As Florida's authorities rush to complete an unprecedented evacuation of millions ahead of an expected direct hit by Hurricane Irma, officials have issued their final dire warnings. Governor, Rick Scott called it a "killer storm" where people "cannot survive" the expected storm surges, urging residents that Saturday night marked the last chance to "make a good decision and evacuate".

President Donald Trump called Irma a storm of "enormous destructive potential" and urged residents to "get out of its way" adding that "property is replaceable but lives are not".

However, despite the warnings and the near-hurricane winds that began late on Saturday night - not to mention the threat from tornadoes and lightning - many residents of southern Florida are choosing to stay and wait out Irma.

“Now I know my roof can handle this, I’m very happy,” said Elizabeth Hannan, who lives just west of Ft Lauderdale on Florida's eastern coast. She was referring to a shift in the tracking report for Hurricane Irma that showed the storm moving up Florida's western Gulf coast, rather than hitting Miami as had previously been expected.

The shift in path now sees southwestern Florida, and up the coast to Tampa shift into the crosshairs of the storm and its maximum 125mph winds - but as he has done for days, Florida's Governor Scott was at pains on Saturday to pint out that all parts of the state are in danger, whether from the winds or from the storm surges near the coast which Mr Scott sees as the biggest danger.

In a number of media appearances and press conferences Mr Scott said he needed "everyone to listen and get out:.

"The storm surge is what really scares me," he said referring to reports of 10ft to 15ft storm surges around Fort Meyers and Tampa, and up to 6ft in Miami. "You cannot survive this," he added.

In Miami, officials had issued evacuation orders and warned that a direct hit from Irma could lead to major devastation, but many had opted to stay put either at home or in shelters.

As the winds picked up, and heavy rain fell - and tonardos were reported in a number of areas - resident Ms Hannan said that she’s prepared for potential power outages.

More than six million people have been ordered to evacuate Florida - with more across other states such as Georgia - as Irma heads for the US having made its way through the Caribbean killing at least 23 people. The storm which passed over Cuba on Saturday after initially approaching the island as a rare Category 5 storm — was forecast to shift westward away from Florida’s largest city.

In Miami-Dade County, and areas around it, people have rushed to pack into shelters. Many reached capacity quickly, filling up with people coming with supplies to keep themselves fed. More than 50,000 fled to shelters in the entire state of Florida this week, packing into schools and convention centres with their blow up mattresses to wait out the storm.

The Florida Keys, off the southern tip of Florida, were seen as particularly vulnerable as Irma, which left Cuba as a Category 3, but was expected to gain strength back to a category 4 and speed on its way towards America. Irma was expected to approach the Keys by early Sunday morning local time.

Mr Scott has mobilised the entire Florida National Guard to help with the storm, and law enforcement was preparing for search and rescue missions after the storm runs through Florida.

“Florida is prepared. We have great first responders. We have great law enforcement. Every single Florida guardsman that can be has already been deployed,” Mr Scott said.

At the Shenanigans East Side Pub, in Hollywood on the eastern coast more than two dozen people packed in Saturday night to eat pizza, drink beer, and enjoy each other’s company before the worst of Hurricane Irma’s effects were felt in the area.

Outside, lightening lit up the sky, rain pelted rooftops and streets, and palm trees swayed in the increasingly powerful winds.

“We’re going to play it by ear,” one employee said while locking up TVs in a covered courtyard. “We’ll close down when the wind gets bad enough.”

Inside, people discussed whether they’d leave their homes in the morning. And, if not, what else they might do with their day.

Their phones, intermittently, buzzed with warnings of tornado watches nearby. But nobody — not the police who had stopped in at one of the last few places with an open kitchen, or the regulars who knew the bartender by name — seemed too worried about the alerts.

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Nearby, Rick Costello, a lawyer with a home right on the beach in Hollywood, said that he had considered heading inland but was going to stick out the storm in his light blue coastal homes with clay shingles.

“I’m more worried about people out west,” Mr Costello said, watching the waves outside his home before the winds picked up. His home was equipped with metal shields for his glass deck doors facing the ocean, and hurricane-proof windows. He hoped the 10-foot elevation of his home would be enough.

Western residents faced a quick decision on Saturday. Walter Hodgdon was one resident to scrap plans to ride out Hurricane Irma on Saturday when the shifting forecast models suddenly put his home on a barrier island on Florida's Gulf Coast directly in its path.

Within hours, Mr Hodgdon and his partner had hastily boarded up their home and were driving to North Carolina.

“Last night, during one of the models, they drew a line right over our house,” said Mr Hodgdon, 58, who lives on Terra Ceia where Tampa Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. “We figured if we are going to leave, we are going to leave completely,” he told Reuters.

Back on the eastern coast, Kelvin Morley, of Palmetto Bay, said his house is prone to flooding, and has suffered roof damage during previous, less intense storms and was one of the thousands to seek shelter in the area.

“It's not safe at home,” Mr Morley said, speaking outside the South Miami High School shelter. “I just want everybody to be safe, and then we will rebuild.”

Hurricane Irma has broken records in the Atlantic, and became just the second storm in recorded history to sustain winds of 185 mph for 24 hours straight.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda said that the latter of those two islands is “literally rubble” after Irma hit, with as much as 95 per cent of the infrastructure there damaged by the storm earlier in the week. Reports of death and damage have also emerged from the US and British Virgin Islands, as well as French islands of St Martin and St Barthelemy.

Across a swath of Cuba, utility poles were toppled, trees uprooted and roads blocked on Saturday. Witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins.

Hurricane Jose, which is following Irma, was expected to heap more misery on Islands like St Martin, with officials saying Jose would dump more rain on the island's buildings, many of which lost their roofs to Irma.

However, some islands received a last-minute reprieve from Jose as it passed by. The US National Hurricane Center downgraded a hurricane warning for Barbuda and Anguilla. A hurricane watch also was discontinued for nearby Antigua. By late Saturday, Jose was 85 miles (135 kilometres) northeast of the Leeward Islands, with winds of 145 mph (230 kmh) but moving away from the area.

As Floridians prepared for the storm, shortages of water and gas caused long lines of people hoping to stock up on essentials. Radio DJs allowed listeners to call in with tips on which grocery stores or services stations had finally gotten a shipment of water or gas. Lines quickly formed at those stations, with 10 or more cars at times waiting to top off their tanks.

Florida officials are hoping for the best, and preparing for the worst, Mr Scott said this week. As many as 5 million people may end up without power for, potentially, weeks at a time after Irma moves through the state. The government says that they have put resources into place in order to respond as quickly as possible to any losses of power. In the meantime, emergency responders are putting into place procedures to respond to any health-related issues that may arise from power outages in the state.

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