HURRICANE Irmaâ€™s outerbands have started lashing Floridaâ€™s southern tip as the governor tells residents â€˜you will not surviveâ€™ unless you evacuate.
Gov. Scott said time is fast running out for 6.3 million Americans ordered to flee Hurricane Irma and warned them to take shelter immediately or “you will not survive”.
“If you have been ordered to evacuate, leave now — not tonight, not in an hour, now,” Gov. Rick Scott told residents. “This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it.”
Irma hit Cuba late on Friday as a Category 5 hurricane, its violent gusts destroying the instrument used to measure wind strength, Cuba’s meteorological agency reported.
At least 24 people were killed even before Irma hit Cuba, leaving entire islands in ruins.
Irma is forecast to smash into Miami as a Category 4 early on Sunday morning (6am local time/8pm Sunday AEST), but has currently been downgraded to a Category 3.
Even before the hurricane strikes, huge storm surges of up to 3.6m are predicted to overwhelm hundreds of kilometres of coastline home to six million people.
And a new danger lay on the horizon to the east: Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm with 150mph (241km/h) winds that could punish some of the devastated areas all over again this weekend.
The governor of the Mexican Gulf coast state of Veracruz is reporting two deaths related to the arrival of Hurricane Katia, which has since been downgraded to a tropical storm.
Governor Miguel Angel Yunes says the two died in a mudslide in a country still reeling from the strongest earthquake to hit Mexico in a century, which killed at least 61 people.
In one of the largest mass evacuations ever undertaken, more than 5.6 million Americans have been ordered from their homes, with police yesterday driving door-to-door and warning over loudspeaker that anyone who stayed was “on their own”.
Irma will bring sustained wind gusts of more than (157mph) 252km/h, which can easily destroy buildings, rip up roads, topple power lines and cripple infrastructure.
Widespread flooding is also expected, but not at the same levels with which Hurricane Harvey tormented Texas last month.
It’s a tense time in Florida as even hardened storm survivors confront what US President Donald Trump yesterday described as an event “of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen”.
Australian cafe owner Marlies Laaper yesterday said she and her husband Uri Aminov had missed out on evacuating because their home on Florida’s west coast at Cape Coral was initially not in the forecast impact zone.
“We weren’t planning to evacuate because there hasn’t been an order and the hurricane was going to hit the east coast,” she said.
Ms Laaper, who has lived in Florida for ten years, said she spent yesterday preparing storm shutters and floodproofing her home and business, Café You.
“But I am sure when we are sitting at home tomorrow with a hurricane battering down on us I will probably get a little nervous.”
Fuel is scarce as millions clogged highways headed north. Those who didn’t try to flee by car filled shelters, set up in schools, churches, even speedways.
Supermarkets across the state have been bled dry of non-perishable food and water. At Walmart in Orlando yesterday, there was no water available and entire shelves of tinned food were stripped — leaving only pickled clams and lumpfish caviar behind.
“It’s been crazy in here the past couple days,” said cashier Andria Franklin, a lifelong Orlando resident.
“Usually people here don’t pay much attention to hurricanes because they happen a lot. But people were scared by what happened in Houston and so they seem to be taking this one a lot more seriously.”
At twice the size of the entire state, Irma is so big that Governor Rick Scott said yesterday “all Floridians should be prepared to evacuate”.
Nancy Maldonado said she chose to flee her Edgewood, Miami, home ahead of an evacuation order because she was scared one of the six construction cranes nearby could topple.
“I haven’t been able to sleep for days,” said Ms Maldonado, 36, who headed north to Pompano Beach Friday.
“This storm has seemed like it was going to swallow us. But now we are safe in a house with hurricane shutters, so we will ride it out here.”
For those who chose to stay-out the storm, authorities had stark warnings that no emergency services would be available in dozens of mandatory evacuation zones in parts of Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and along the state’s low-lying coastline. They said nobody was safe in the Florida Keys, a string islands to the south west of the mainland and where first landfall was predicted.
“It’s not a question of if Florida’s going to be impacted, it’s a question of how bad Florida’s going to be impacted and where the storm ends up,” said William Long of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The FEMA boss said anyone who thought they had lived through other devastating storms such as Andrew in 1992 (one of only two hurricanes to make landfall as a category 5 after Camille in 1969) didn’t understand Irma’s potential.
Mr Long said Irma was “a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or some of the southeastern states,” and he warned residents in states from Alabama to North Carolina to be prepared.
“I can guarantee you that I don’t know anybody in Florida that’s ever experienced what’s about to hit South Florida,” Mr Long said.