Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez expanded evacuation orders Thursday to the county’s coast and other inland areas as Hurricane Irma threatened to bring severe flooding to South Florida.
Gimenez’s new order covers the rest of evacuation Zone B as well as Zone C, a rapid escalation of Miami-Dade’s efforts to get residents to flee areas considered most vulnerable to dangerous storm surge. On Wednesday, Gimenez told residents in Zone A and the eastern part of Zone B — Miami Beach and the county’s other barrier islands — to begin evacuating at 7 a.m. Thursday.
READ MORE: Download the evacuation order map
The expanded order for all of Zone B includes Miami’s two main office and condo districts on Brickell Avenue and downtown, as well as large portions of South Dade. Parts of Cutler Bay, Florida City and Homestead — a city ravaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — sit in the expanded evacuation area. For Zone C, the evacuation orders expand even further inland, encompassing areas that are generally south of Coral Way, but also include both sides of Biscayne Boulevard north of Miami, and parts of Aventura and Coral Gables. While there are some exceptions, the portion of C ordered to evacuate mostly sits east of U.S. 1 and Biscayne Boulevard.
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Combined, the orders represent the largest evacuation ever attempted by Miami-Dade County, with more than 650,000 instructed to leave their homes ahead of Irma.
“I’ve been here 60 years. I’ve never heard of this kind of evacuation,” Gimenez, a former Miami fire chief, told reporters Thursday. “Certainly, during Hurricane Andrew there wasn’t this kind of evacuation, and we know we had these storm surges up to 17 feet. But these models are new. And this information is new.”
Miami-Dade’s evacuation zones follow the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s storm-surge forecasts, and the county is telling people to leave based on the possibility of “life-threatening” flooding from Irma, Gimenez said. [To find out your evacuation zone, go to this county website and type in your address, though the site might be slow.]
He said he decided to expand the orders after studying storm-surge maps provided Thursday morning by the National Hurricane Center after it issued a hurricane watch for South Florida. The new orders were considered effective immediately. The mayor urged people to first seek shelter with friends and family before going to an emergency shelter.
“Now is the time for us to come together and help each other out,” Gimenez said.
On Wednesday, the mayor issued evacuation orders for the eastern parts of Zone B — including Miami Beach and the rest of the county’s barrier islands — and told residents to begin leaving at 7 a.m. Thursday. Also Wednesday, Gimenez ordered residents of the county’s most vulnerable evacuation area, Zone A, to leave, along with residents of trailer homes countywide. Combined, the orders affected about 200,000 residents.
With his expanded order, Gimenez has now instructed more than 650,000 people to flee their homes in advance of a Category 5 hurricane expected to bring tropical-storm winds Saturday before potentially making landfall Sunday. About 2.7 million people live in Miami-Dade.
Eight emergency shelters had opened by Thursday, Seven them are at public schools: Miami Carol City Senior High in Miami Gardens, North Miami Senior High, TERRA Environmental in Kendall, Miami Central Senior High, North Miami Beach Senior High, South Miami Senior High and Felix Varela Senior High in West Kendall. The shelter at the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exhibition is accepting pets. Evacuees should enter through Gate 2.
Ahead of Irma, Gimenez outlined the chief worry he faced as mayor of Florida’s most populous county: Ordering more evacuations might save lives along the coast, but it also risks stranding thousands of motorists in a storm exodus on clogged highways — leaving them out of gas and essentially homeless as Irma threatened with a coastal track up the state.
“The worst place to be in a hurricane is in your car, on an open road,” Gimenez said Thursday.
Broward County’s mandatory evacuations of trailer homes and mobile areas began at noon Thursday, with Mayor Barbara Sharief cautioning residents that roads are already packed.
“Our roads are very full right now, and they are full with people that are evacuating from other counties, and they are coming through Broward,” she said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday morning in Hialeah that the state was “seeing bottlenecks at major highway junctions.”
“You do not need to evacuate out of the state, or hundreds of miles away, to be safe,” he said. “Find shelters in your county.”
Monroe County, home to low-lying Florida Keys, had gotten some 31,000 people out by 6 p.m. Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. Residents were ordered to leave by the end of Thursday, with public buses shuttling people from Key West north to Florida International University in Miami. A hotline — 1-800-955-5504 — is available to help Keys residents unable to depart on their own.
Emergency managers in Key West estimated up to 15,000 tourists have had to get out of the islands. By 7 a.m. Fridays, all Keys hospitals will be closed and no helicopters will be available for people who remain.
If one of the 42 bridges connecting Key West to the mainland goes under water, warned Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi, “you’re stuck.”