Just how catastrophic South Florida leaders fear Hurricane Irma could be became evident Thursday when Miami-Dade County ordered an evacuation the mayor called “unprecedented,” as hope diminished that the Category 5 beast would somehow avoid us.
“We have to prepare for the worst,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said moments after instructing more than 650,000 people to get out.
His decision, announced after a lengthy internal analysis of flood maps and projections of potentially deadly storm surge, made the National Hurricane Center’s Thursday forecasts finally sink in: Irma is set to hit the Florida peninsula directly, though exactly where continues to be uncertain.
Increasingly grim-faced emergency managers across the state did not hesitate. Evacuations extended from the Florida Keys to Palm Beach and beyond, as counties along Florida’s east coast eyed the storm’s projected path north. Even Georgia required its coastal residents to leave.
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In the middle of it all were frantic residents trying to figure out if the orders applied to them or their loved ones — and how far they might have to go to heed them. Some decided to go before it was too late.
“I think this is going to be a catastrophe,” said David Kelsey, a South Beach resident who waited for a county school bus to shuttle him and other seniors to shelters on the mainland. He walked to Rebecca Towers, two bayfront senior housing buildings south of Fifth Street. “I think there is going to be devastation.”
Miami-Dade expanded its evacuation order to include all of Zone B, encompassing Brickell and downtown, and large portions of South Dade ravaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Also included was Zone C, encompassing areas further inland south of Coral Way, north of Miami and in Aventura.
The state’s major highways — the Florida Turnpike, Interstate 95 and Interstate 75 — became increasingly paralyzed with traffic, and not just in South Florida, where evacuations began.
The Turnpike, its tolls suspended, was mostly jammed from Palm Beach County through Orlando on Thursday evening; I-75 was congested through Ocala, Gainesville and even Lake City, at the I-10 interchange. Even some back roads were bogged down, including U.S. 27, which starts as Northwest 36th Street in Miami and snakes north and across the state through Tallahassee.
A gasoline shortage worried the state so much that Gov. Rick Scott asked law enforcement to escort fuel tankers driving in to replenish stations. He repeatedly urged Floridians to drive only as far as necessary.
“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.”
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both addressed federal preparations Thursday for the storm’s aftermath. Irma has already struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and could plow through several states before finally dissipating. The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency.
Trump said Florida is “very well prepared.” “But the amount of wind that’s coming in — we don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this yet,” he added.
Across South Florida, stores closed, companies sent workers home and evacuees began making their way to emergency shelters. Eight opened in Miami-Dade and 14 in Broward. No one should be asked for identification or legal status at shelters; unauthorized immigrants in Texas in some cases didn’t seek help for fear of deportation during Hurricane Harvey.
The University of Florida called off a scheduled football game on Saturday that would have put thousands of Gator fans on I-75 on the last day Floridians could use the highway as an evacuation route. The University of Miami ordered its first evacuation ever, sending 150 students who remain on the shut-down campus to a Red Cross shelter. The Archdiocese of Miami suspended regular weekend Masses, dispensing the faithful from their religious obligation for their safety.
Emergency managers’ message was consistent: Once winds pick up, ambulances, police and firefighters will no longer safely be able to reach residents in evacuation zones.
“We are expecting life-threatening water levels in the next two days,” said Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief, who on Wednesday had ordered an evacuation for mobile homes and residents east of Federal Highway.
Monroe County had gotten some 31,000 people out of the Keys by 6 p.m. Wednesday, the governor 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.
Even the Coast Guard had moved out.
Miami Herald staff writers Julie K. Brown, Mary Ellen Klas, Michelle Kaufman, Carol Rosenberg and Carli Teproff contributed to this report. Clark and Klas reported from Tallahassee.