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No evacuation orders will be issued in Miami-Dade County yet, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Wednesday, warning that people living on barrier islands and low-lying mainland areas may still be asked to leave ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Gimenez had been ready to instruct residents to get out, but he said the 11 a.m. Irma advisory from the National Hurricane Center gave him pause.
“The storm’s slowing down, giving us a little bit more time,” Gimenez said from the county’s emergency operations center in Doral.
Nearly half a million residents who live in storm-surge zones A and B could be asked to leave before Irma hits, Gimenez said. That evacuation of about 470,000 people would take about 26 hours, according to county estimates.
Zone A covers Key Biscayne and coastal areas in southern Miami-Dade and north of Miami; zone B covers Miami’s Brickell Avenue neighborhood, more inland areas, Miami Beach and other oceanfront cities.
Once an order is issued, residents are asked to leave voluntarily ahead of expected coastal flooding that will prevent emergency services from reaching those areas during the storm.
Gimenez nevertheless urged residents already choosing to leave their homes to hit the roads sooner rather than later.
“My advice is to leave early,” he said. “We don’t want you to be caught in a hurricane in your car.”
Some 2,000 vulnerable residents with special needs have already been asked to seek shelter elsewhere. Gimenez encouraged tourists to shorten their vacations and depart as quickly as possible.
The mayor held off on mandating broad evacuations Wednesday even as Broward County ordered residents in coastal and low-lying areas and mobile homes to leave. Broward evacuations will begin noon Thursday. Fourteen Broward emergency shelters will also open Thursday.
Irma remains a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, but there is still uncertainty over which part of Florida it might hit, or how directly. Ordering evacuations is one of the most difficult decisions for local leaders to make: Start them too early, and tens of thousands of people might be seriously inconvenienced for a storm that never arrives. Begin them too late, and those people risk getting stuck on roads during the storm.
Gov. Rick Scott, who joined Gimenez for part of Wednesday’s briefing, said each county will make its own evacuation decisions, and the state will facilitate them by ensuring roads are orderly and counties have emergency resources.
“I believe everybody’s going to work together,” Scott said.
Gimenez said Miami-Dade residents in zones A and B could move to one of four emergency shelters that will open at 5 p.m. Wednesday. One will be pet-friendly.
“Tomorrow morning, we’ll have a clearer picture of what the storm is going to do,” the mayor said. “We’re not ready to issue that [evacuation] order yet because we have, frankly, a little bit more time, so we’re going to take advantage of that time.”
Monroe County, which comprises the Florida Keys, instructed visitors to leave Wednesday, with residents ordered to go Thursday. The Florida Department of Transportation suspended highway tolls beginning Tuesday afternoon.
After serving long lines of customers Tuesday, some South Florida gas stations were closed Wednesday morning. Scott blamed a surge in demand but said there is no gas shortage in the region.
“We sold an unbelievable amount of gas yesterday, and it’s continuing today,” he said. “The bottleneck is really the trucks getting to the gas stations and how much people are taking. The goal is: Take what you need. Don’t take any more. There’s enough gas here.”
Florida’s two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, said the federal government is ready to assist the state with any storm needs.
“It’s not going to be a repeat of what happened with the federal government 25 years ago with Andrew,” Nelson said, while acknowledging that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been stretched by Hurricane Harvey and by Irma’s havoc in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “You’re not going to see what happened with Hurricane Katrina.”
Rubio praised Florida’s preparation efforts but emphasized that aid can’t move in until the storm moves out.
”You don’t have until Sunday to get ready,” he said. “Lives are saved at the beginning of the storm.”