Satellite view of Hurricane Irma's eye as it ravages through the Atlantic
The Florida Keys, a vulnerable thread-bare island chain and tourist mecca that has withstood some of the fiercest storms to ever hit the United States, is expected to order a mandatory evacuation of visitors and residents on Wednesday ahead of powerful Hurricane Irma.
Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said if Hurricane Irma remains on its current path, tourists will be told to leave some time in the morning and residents will follow in the early evening.
Unlike recent past storms when hotels allowed visitors to stay at their own risk, this time emergency managers said they’re taking no chances. Tuesday, ahead of the evacuation order, emergency managers issued dire warnings and noted repeatedly that very few places within the 113-mile island chain were built to withstand Category 5 winds.
Irma, racing west through the Atlantic Tuesday, had sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, with some as high as 180. Those are record winds for the Atlantic basin.
If need be, Ramsay said his staff would take shelter in the some of the newer high schools in the Keys or at Monroe County’s main jail on Stock Island. Those are the only structures, he added, built to withstand the winds that Irma was packing on Tuesday.
Even the venerable Crowne Plaza La Concha Hotel on Duval Street in Key West, a sturdy concrete structure built in 1926 and which survived some of the winds from the great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, wasn’t built to withstand the winds being whipped up by Irma on Tuesday.
Another structure in the Keys not built with a Category 5 hurricane in mind: The Emergency Operations Center in Marathon. If Irma continues its trek over the next few days, islanders could expect to feel tropical storm force winds as early as Friday night.
“This is a scary storm,” said Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Spokeswoman Becky Herrin. “We all need to take it extremely seriously. Nothing is built to withstand a Cat 5.”
Ahead of the planned evacuation, managers were urging the public — even the storm-seasoned locals who number close to 70,000 — to leave Tuesday and avoid the traffic.
If there was a bright spot, it’s that this week, with summer ending and students heading back to school, is the slowest week of the year for tourists visiting the 43 islands connected by bridges that make up the Florida Keys.
Still, Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt said if ever there was a storm to take seriously in the Keys, Irma is it. Senterfitt said the storm at its current pace is so severe that Monroe County isn’t planning on opening any shelters.
All of Monroe County’s government buildings, parks and schools are scheduled to close Wednesday. Even its three hospitals, Key West’s Lower Keys Medical Center, Fisherman’s Hospital in Marathon and Mariner’s Hospital in Tavernier have begun plans to evacuate. Also closing is Monroe County’s Health Department.
“The sooner people leave, the better,” he said.
Even The Florida Keys SPCA Key West and Marathon campuses were getting ready to evacuate animals ahead of Irma. Residents have been told to evacuate pets and that shelters would not stay open.
The Key West animal shelter is evacuating 89 cats, 24 dogs, 23 rabbits, eight turtles, a chicken and a parakeet. In Marathon, 43 cats, eight dogs, four turtles and three iguanas are leaving.
Some places weren’t waiting until Wednesday to close. The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West closed at noon Tuesday. And the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary offices in Key West and Key Largo were planning to close later in the day. Also closing Wednesday night was Key West International Airport.
The Florida Keys has a long history of being struck by hurricanes. But none have come close to the death and destruction levied by the infamous Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, one of the most intense to have ever struck the U.S.
With winds of over 180 miles per hour, three ships were grounded and 11 cars from a Florida East Coast Railway Overseas Railroad relief train on Upper Matecumbe Key near Islamorada, were swept from the tracks. Most of the Upper Keys were destroyed and the storm killed and drowned more than 500 people.
Ramsay said families of first responders are being urged to get out of harm’s way and avoid Irma’s strengthening windfield.
“We’ve never seen something at 180. You’ve got to plan for a worst-case scenario,” he said. “This is a big storm, a powerful storm.”