Stay inside, authorities warned. This storm could kill you, they said. We are not out of the woods.
But as Hurricane Irma began to swing west of Miami — avoiding what seemed for days like a devastating direct hit — those who live outside of South Florida’s evacuation zones took one last chance to breathe Saturday morning.
At Karla Bakery, in Miami’s heavily Hispanic Flagami neighborhood, long lines clamored for fresh-baked Cuban bread and guava pastelitos starting at 5:30 a.m. Leonardo Izuierdo had already sealed his house for the storm and stocked it with provisions. But it didn’t seem like Irma had arrived, and the prospect of two days locked in with hurricane food was driving his family to stomach-rumbling madness.
“Unfortunately, when these natural disasters threaten and you’re locked indoors, all of a sudden you get an appetite,” said Izquierdo, 56, who ordered bread, meat pastelitos and cheese-filled tequenos. “I don’t know what it is about the combination of water and flour, but it hits the spot.”
In Miami Lakes, Ozzie Gomez and four friends found their Saturday morning hangout spot boarded up for Irma. So they set up some folding chairs outside the Latin American Grill and fired up their cigars. They said they’d leave before winds start howling at tropical storm speeds.
“It’s so dark in the house with it all shuttered, I just had to get out,” Gomez said.
Little Havana’s Palacio de los Jugos was busy as the normal weekend rush.
And Javier Narvaez, standing ankle-deep in choppy Miami Beach seas, turned his head to an ominous sky. In his hands, he held a sign: “Enjoy your life. Carajo!” it proclaimed, using a Spanish word beloved in Miami that roughly translates to “damn it.”
The stubborn city
State, local and federal officials know Miami doesn’t like being told what to do.
Even at public shelters, some evacuees tried to smother their fear with everyday routine. At one South Dade Middle School classroom, a young man had set up a flat screen TV and was leaning back in what appeared to be a reclining portable chair.
“There have been some rumors about Miami-Dade being in the clear and being safe from a hit by Hurricane Irma because we’re no longer in the cone,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Saturday morning. “We must remain vigilant. A very serious storm is coming our way, and will be here through Sunday.”
While the Florida Keys and the Gulf coast face a potentially catastrophic hit, South Florida could still see hurricane-force winds and deadly storm surges, not to mention tornadoes and heavy rains.
“As many as 20 inches in places,” said National Hurricane Center specialist Mike Brennan.
Squalls and heavy gusts of wind had already started Saturday morning as Irma’s outer bands arrived in South Florida.
“Don’t be the guy or the gal who gets killed by a tree,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio warned.
Across the state, 6.3 million Floridians have been ordered to leave their homes, roughly 30 percent of the state. All day, traffic trudged north at a steady pace. Twenty-four Florida hospitals were closed to evacuate. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority asked drivers to clear highways. Air and seaports were shut down. And more than 30,000 people in Dade and Broward were without power, long before Irma even made landfall in Florida.
“This is an unbelievably massive, destructive storm. It’s a killer,” Gov. Rick Scott said during a string of early morning television appearances.
More than 650,000 Dade residents have been told to leave. Many are listening.
Evacuation zones in Miami Beach and downtown Miami were largely quiet Saturday morning. The police chief of Sunny Isles Beach said 90 percent of residents had cleared out. But in South Beach and downtown, some homeless remained on the streets. Police have been helping them find shelter and involuntarily committing some of those who refuse to go.
Outside Miami-Dade’s public library downtown, Guatemala native Carlos Mena, 67, sought refuge at a bus bench outside the library. Asked if he would go indoors at some point later in the day, he simply shook his head: “No problem,” he said. “No hay problema.”
Many residents of South Florida trailer parks, saying they did not know how to reach public shelters, also refused to leave. Winds like Irma’s could rip their tin-can homes to bits.
Give me shelter
For residents who did leave their homes, shelter wasn’t always easy to find.
Ricardo Arlain said he was turned away from three shelters, including one that authorities realized too late was in a flood zone, before settling down at Killian High School.
“It should not have been so confusing,” said Arlain, 73, who lives alone after the death of his wife a few years ago. “I know we don’t get hurricanes every day, but people should have working on this and getting their information straight.”
Miami-Dade has faced criticism for the county’s slow pace in opening shelters, and for logistical problems in staffing and operating them. The county had 41 shelters open on Saturday, and 11 were full. About 26,000 people were listed as being inside in response to an unprecedented evacuation order. Shelters accepting pets also briefly ran out of room.
National Guard members and Miami-Dade police had to turn people away from a shelter at South Dade Middle School on Saturday morning. At least 2,500 people were already packed in.
Families lined the school hallways, some resting on blankets and pillows, a lucky few stretched out on air mattresses. The rest of the evacuees were packed in tightly, with little space between blankets.
Across South Florida, emergency responders readied themselves for the storm. They know Irma is coming, and people could be hurt.
Mark DeMaria, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, said Southeast Florida can expect a long period of thunderstorms along the east coast.
“We expect conditions to worsen tonight and over tomorrow,” he said.
At Miami’s Emergency Operations Center, dozens of police officers, dispatchers and firefighters took phone calls and drank cafecito while warily watching the weather. Pete Gomez, the assistant fire chief who oversees the center, said the forecast looks better than a day ago but compared the situation to half-time at a football game.
“We got to prepare for the second half,” he said.
Everyone was getting ready.
At a gas station on Southwest Eighth Street and 17th Ave, Lionel Perret bent over at the waist and plugged an air hose into a grey, 4-person Sevylor Supercaravelle raft.
He dragged the limp inflatable to the station around 11 a.m., and was just about done a half-hour later.
“I use it for fishing in Key Biscayne,” he joked. “I got a motor.... I’ll be fishing with my family, looking for higher ground.”
Saturday evening, as Irma moved even further west, teens at the South Dade shelter danced salsa. They’d never met before.
No one was worried about the storm.
"Right now, no," said Geyssler Chacon-Stevens, 18. "But once the power goes out we're all gonna be like, 'My phone!' "
Miami Herald staff writers Mimi Whitefield, Charles Rabin, Nancy Dahlberg, Daniel Chang, Lance Dixon, Chabeli Herrera, David Santiago and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.