'The Storm Is Here': Floridians' Window To Evacuate Is Closing As Irma Bears Down
After battering Cuba on Saturday morning, the eye of Hurricane Irma had its sights set on Florida as a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph that were predicted to only gain in strength, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Florida braces for direct hit
"The storm is here," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a 9:30 a.m. press conference Saturday.
"Southeast Florida is already experiencing tropical storm force winds, and nearly 25,000 people have already lost power," Scott said. "This is a deadly storm, and our state has never seen anything like it. Millions of Floridians will see major hurricane impacts with deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds."
On Saturday morning, Irma was located about 200 miles south of Miami along the northern coast of Cuba and moving northwest 12 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
By Saturday night and into the early Sunday hours, Irma is expected to move over the Florida Keys, says Michael Brennan, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.
"That's going to take the core of the hurricane up or just onshore of the west coast of Florida during the day on Sunday into Sunday night."
The massive amount of water that Irma's winds could bring ashore is one of the biggest risks.
A storm surge warning was in effect Saturday for much of Florida's coast — both eastern and western.
"That storm surge could be 5 to 10 feet above ground level so those are both life-threatening hazards, and anybody who stayed in the Florida Keys has really put their life at risk," Brennan says. "That risk is going to spread up the west coast of Florida."
But Scott put the storm surge warning in much starker terms at a noon press conference Saturday.
"There is a serious threat of significant storm surge flooding along the entire west coast of Florida and this has increased to 15 feet of impact above ground level."
Scott noted that residents could be lulled into a false sense of safety because the storm surge follows the wind.
"This will cover your house," Scott said. "If you've ever watched how storm surge works, it flows in fast, very fast, then it flows out. You will not survive."
Time to evacuate narrows
The evacuation window was closing fast Saturday. Scott reiterated the call for residents under an evacuation order to get out immediately, "You need to leave now," Scott said around 9:30 a.m.
"If you live in an evacuation zone in southwest Florida, you need to be on the road by noon or find the nearest shelter to avoid life-threatening weather," Scott said. "It's going to go faster than you are."
Scott noted that while some traffic remained Saturday morning, "overall evacuation routes are moving."
More than 6 million Floridians have been ordered to leave their homes.
The National Weather Service Key West tweeted that everybody in the Keys, should "get out if you can," with a guide to "refuges of last resort."
Miami hit by outer bands
On Saturday morning, Miami was being hit by the outer bands of the storm, bringing strong winds and heavy rain.
The weather forced NPR's Kirk Siegler to turn back after attempting to reach a Miami shelter. Earlier, he was able to meet with resident Gloria Negron who along with her dog, Lucky, got into a city shelter.
"We just have to do our best, inside there," Negron said. "There are too many people. And everybody is at the edge."
Negron had to spend the night sleeping in a chair, but she is one of the lucky ones. Siegler reports that the shelter has had to turn away others because of overcrowding.
Scott said there were more than 260 shelters open across the state in every county, with 70 more shelters set to open Saturday.
"More than 50,000 Floridians have taken shelter, and there is still room for more."
Other state residents have opted to ride out the storm in their homes.
Paul McNamara of Port St. Lucie tells NPR that his wife's profession — she is a nurse — meant she could not leave work, so they are staying home with their two children, ages 1 and 4.
"We have storm shutters, a generator, a lot of water, food, diapers and probably a large market share of the locally available flashlights," McNamara told NPR. "I imagine our shed will be leveled and our fence will disappear, but other than that, we should be scared out of our mind."
Meantime, Kyle Manders of Naples said he got out of town on Tuesday with his wife and dog.
"We didn't want to risk our lives, and we were able to secure our home quickly thanks to accordion shutters. Leaving behind the life we built in our home was a bit surreal. What keepsakes to save?" Manders added that lessons from Hurricane Harvey — a storm that brought rapid flooding — persuaded him to leave.
Irma Batters Cuba
When Irma made landfall in Cuba early Saturday, it was still a Category 5 storm. It ripped across the island nation's northern shores, downing power lines, bending palm trees and sending huge waves crashing over sea walls, reports The Associated Press.
CNN reports conditions were expected to deteriorate into Saturday even as the storm moved away, "but it could take a long time before the full extent of the damage is known."
Irma has left devastation across the Caribbean, killing at least 20 people, leveling basic infrastructure and leaving thousands homeless.
Paul Exner, an American citizen in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, posted a darkened video plea to Facebook.
"It is fairly critical that aid in terms of food and water is brought to the island," Exner said Saturday night.
French, American and British relief has all been dispatched to the region.
Damages from Irma were estimated to be $1.44 billion by Saturday, reports The Associated Press.
Part of a storm-battered region will unfortunately not be granted much of a reprieve.
"Jose is out there, and it is actually, unfortunately, affecting some of the same areas in the northeastern Leeward Islands that were hit very very hard by Irma just a few days ago," said Brennan of the National Hurricane Center.