Florida:Irma lashes Florida, leaving thousands without power

“When Irma eventually hits land it might be a Category 3, which is significantly less than what was predicted,” said Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Miami.

“But that is still a major storm and still could cause significant destruction across Florida.”

While Miami would likely “escape the worst”, Key West “is going to be hammered”, Fisher said.

“This was a city that was prepared for the worst and has been preparing since Monday to what might come their way,” Fisher said.

Michael Hernandez, adviser to Miami’s mayor, told Al Jazeera: “We’ve taken unprecedented measures to protect our residents.

“We feel that we have done all that we can … whether this storm hits us as a Category 5, 4, or what they’re saying since it’s moved away – a Category 1 or 2. It doesn’t matter. We made the right call.”

Mass exodus

In Florida, cities on both the east and west coasts took on the appearance of ghost towns, as nervous residents heeded insistent evacuation orders.

The storm was expected to move along or near Florida’s southwest Gulf coast by Sunday afternoon.

But Irma is so wide that authorities were bracing for destructive storm surges on both coasts and the Keys, the chain of low-lying islands that stretch south of Miami toward Cuba.

WATCH: What’s behind world’s recent extreme weather events?

And hurricane-force winds are expected to lash the peninsula as it rolls north toward Georgia.

A tornado funnel cloud has already formed off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, with the NHC warning that “a few” more were possible in south and central Florida.

On highway 75 along the western coast of Florida, a steady stream of cars pressed northward as thousands fled at the last minute from the fast-approaching killer hurricane.

Petrol pumps are wrapped in plastic ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma [Chip Somodevilla/AFP]
Bumper-to-bumper traffic snaked north out of the state, with mattresses, gas cans and kayaks strapped to car roofs.

Strip malls, fast food restaurants and retail giants were all closed for business.

In Key West, police opened a “shelter of last resort” for those who had ignored mandatory evacuation orders.

Scott Abraham, who lives on the fifth floor of a beachfront apartment building in Miami Beach, is planning to ignore evacuation orders and ride the storm out with his wife and two kids.

“If I lived in a house I would have left, but if it gets flooded here it’s going to take a week at least to come back. I don’t want that,” he said.

Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew – which killed 65 people in 1992 – Scott, Florida’s governor, said all 20.6 million Floridians should prepare to flee.

Path of destruction

The storm smashed through a string of Caribbean islands, beginning with tiny Barbuda on Wednesday, followed by the holiday islands of Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin.

Also affected were the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos. The Bahamas were spared Irma’s worst.

“Houses are smashed, the airport is out of action,” Saint Barthelemy resident Olivier Toussaint said.

“Upside-down cars are in the cemeteries. Boats are sunk in the marina, shops are destroyed.”

A shopper walks past empty shelves ahead of Hurricane Irma making landfall in Kissimmee, Florida [Gregg Newton/Reuters]
Another powerful storm, Category 4 Hurricane Jose, was heading toward the same string of Caribbean islands Irma has pummeled in recent days, though it was now forecast to be weaker than initially expected.

The deteriorating weather grounded aircraft and prevented boats from bringing relief supplies to hard-hit islands.

The US military was mobilising thousands of troops and deploying several large ships to aid with evacuations and humanitarian relief, as the Air Force removed scores of planes from the southern United States.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

 

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Mareeg senior news editor since 2001 and he can be reached at news@mareeg.com