Hurricane Irma strengthened to a Category 4 storm Monday as it continued on a westerly track, increasing the likelihood that South Florida would be affected by the week’s end.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in all counties ahead of the storm to ease red tape between state, federal and local governments.
By Monday afternoon, slow-moving Irma sustained winds of 130 miles per hour as it chugged through the Caribbean, according to the National Hurricane Center. While storm models vary, most forecasts call for the storm, which was traveling at 13 mph, to turn to the west-northwest by the end of the day Tuesday — putting Florida in its path.
Irma’s winds were expected to start buffeting the Caribbean on Tuesday. The storm’s center was forecast to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the hurricane center said.
A hurricane warning was issued for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Martin, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and St. Barts. A hurricane watch was in effect for Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, the British and U.S. Virgin islands and Guadeloupe. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Guadeloupe and a tropical storm watch for Dominica.
The storm could directly affect the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispanola, the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas and Cuba, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Emergency officials warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches of rain, unleash landslides and dangerous flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet as the storm drew closer.
“We’re looking at Irma as a very significant event,” Ronald Jackson, executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, said by phone. “I can’t recall a tropical cone developing that rapidly into a major hurricane prior to arriving in the central Caribbean.”
The hurricane also is projected to strengthen over the next two days.
On social media, the approaching storm was a hot topic, drawing posts from anxious residents in the Caribbean and U.S., as well as government entities. Miami-Dade County Emergency Management turned to Twitter to urge residents to prepare for the storm and stock emergency kits.
“#Irma fierce & on track. SE FL should think Wilma as a MINIMUM & be imagining how to deal with much worse. #PrepNow,” tweeted Weather Channel meteorologist Bryan Norcross.
That message was echoed by meteorologists with the National Weather Service, who cautioned that South Floridians should restock on supplies and make sure that they have an action plan in place.
“It’s not something I’d play with. I think it’s better to respect nature and always be ready,” said meteorologist Robert Garcia. “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
In a statement, Scott said that while the path of the storm is unknown, the state should be ready to act.
“While the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared. This state of emergency allows our emergency management officials to act swiftly in the best interest of Floridians without the burden of bureaucracy or red tape,” Scott’s statement read.
Garcia said meteorologists likely won’t have a true sense of potential impact on South Florida until Wednesday or Thursday. The Florida Keys and Miami could begin to feel the storm’s affects Friday.
“It’s a little too early to say what it’s going to do because at this rate a few miles could make a difference,” Garcia said.
With Hurricane Andrew’s 25th anniversary passing just a few weeks ago and Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas fresh on the minds of shoppers, many South Floridians took advantage of the Labor Day holiday to hit grocery and hardware stores.
Drinking water was sold out at several stores across the region, from the Publix at Sunset Harbor in Miami Beach to Milam’s in Coconut Grove and the Walmart Supercenter at 3200 NW 79th Street. With the storm still days away, several store managers posted signs and told customers that they would be restocking Tuesday.
Monday, shoppers said they were hitting stores early to beat last-minute crowds that generally flood stores just before a storm is expected.
Some stores were able to keep pace with the surge of early birds. At a Publix in Miami’s Morningside neighborhood, shelves still held ample supplies of bottled water at mid-afternoon, and workers were refilling them through the day.
Morningside shopper Dan Zimmer said he’d been awakened by a call from a friend in Kendall, who said his own neighborhood stores were packed and water was in short supply.
When he arrived at the Morningside Publix he decided to stock up. “I figured I might as well get ahead of it,” Zimmer said — he still had some supplies left from last year’s preparations for Hurricane Matthew.
“It’s gonna get crazy and I’d rather get it done before there’s more people and it’s chaos,” said fellow shopper Mike Kizek. “If I waited then all that would be left is cans of tomato sauce.”
Some other local stores were already running short.
Drinking water was sold out Monday at the Walmart Supercenter at 3200 NW 79th Street; Walmart’s public relations spokesman said the company had decided not to comment on storm supplies, saying “they are focused primarily on ensuring smooth operations and want to avoid a rush on stores.”
At Sunset Harbor in Miami Beach, water was sold out Monday afternoon; a manager told shoppers it would be restocked Tuesday. The story was the same at Milam’s Market in Coconut Grove and the Target in Midtown Miami.
William Diaz, a front-end coordinator at a Publix in Coral Gables, said the store was expecting another shipment of water by the end of the night.
“Even if the truck doesn’t arrive before we close, we should be stocked up and ready to go when we open [Tuesday],” Diaz said.
At home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, store spokespeople said that the businesses are monitoring the storm and have plans to meet demand.
“Once a storm like Irma is spotted, we quickly alert stores in the potential strike zone and start mobilizing supplies to the area. Many of those supplies come from distribution centers where we’ve pre-staged loads of hurricane supplies ahead of the hurricane season, including our hurricane distribution center in Lakeland, Florida,” said Home Depot spokesman Matt Harrigan in an emailed statement.
At Lowe’s, the store’s communications team said the business will send critical supplies to Florida but they are also still providing supplies and aid to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
“Today we have shipped more than 325 truckloads of product to Florida in preparation for the storm. We continue to expedite shipments so our customers can properly prepare for an event. Our Command Center is keeping a close watch on Hurricane Irma and updates to its path,” said spokeswoman Sarah Lively in an emailed statement.
Miami Herald staffers Douglas Hanks Jr., Joey Flechas and Rick Hirsch contributed to this report. This report was supplemented by material from the Associated Press.
Airline changes waived
Some American Airlines passengers with tickets for Tuesday or Wednesday to destinations in the path of Hurricane Irma can change their tickets without change fees, the airline announced Monday.
The offer is open to passengers who bought tickets by Sept. 3, are slated to travel Sept. 5-6 and are available to travel Sept. 4-9.
The policy affects travelers slated to travel to, from or through Anguilla Wallblake, Anguilla; Antigua; Beef Island, British Virgin Islands; San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Croix or St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands; St. Kitts, Saint Kitts and Nevis; or St. Maarten, Saint Maarten. Their origin and destinations cannot be changed; the class of service must remain the same.
David J. Neal
Before a storm hits
▪ Stock up with drinking water, batteries, candles and nonperishable foods that can be easily heated or eaten without cooking.
▪ Bring in furniture, plants and other items that could be picked up by wind.
▪ Fill your car with gas.
▪ Refill prescriptions.
▪ Get cash from an ATM machine.
▪ Move your car to a protected place unlikely to flood.
▪ Take photos or scan critical documents, including your insurance policies.