SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (WJZ/AP) — Wielding the most powerful winds ever recorded for a storm in the Atlantic Ocean, Hurricane Irma bore down Tuesday on the Leeward Islands of the northeast Caribbean on a forecast path that could take it toward Florida over the weekend.
Hurricane Irma’s size and strength put the entire state of Florida on notice Tuesday, and residents and visitors prepared to leave in anticipation of catastrophic winds and floods that could reach the state by this weekend.
Throughout South Florida, officials readied evacuation orders and people raided store shelves, buying up water and other hurricane supplies. Long lines formed at gas stations and people pulled shutters out of storage and put up plywood to protect their homes and businesses.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dad County announces that evacuations will begin on Wednesday due to Irma.
Hurricane Irma grew into a dangerous Category 5 storm, the most powerful seen in the Atlantic in over a decade, and roared toward islands in the northeast Caribbean Tuesday on a path that could eventually take it to the United States.
There is also an evacuation is a state of emergency declared for Monroe County ( which includes the southwest tip of Florida and the Keys). There is are mandatory evacuation details in place for visitors, tourists and non-residents beginning at 7 a.m. Wednesday, September 6, and a mandatory evacuation of residents beginning at 7 p.m.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in all 67 counties to give local governments “ample time, resources and flexibility” to prepare for the storm.
“While it’s still too early to tell exactly where this storm will hit, it’s incredibly important all Floridians keep a close eye on this incredibly dangerous storm,” Scott said.
Scott has also waived all tolls to help with evacuation efforts.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma was a “potentially catastrophic” storm with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph (295 kph) in late afternoon as it approached the Caribbean from the east, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The center said there was a growing possibility that the storm’s effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track: “Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place.”
Irma is so strong because of the unusually warm waters for that part of the Atlantic.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 60 miles (95 kilometers) from the center and tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 175 miles (280 kilometers).
Irma’s center was expected to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the hurricane center said. The eye was later expected to pass about 50 miles (80.46 kilometers) from Puerto Rico late Wednesday.
While some are choosing to stay behind, others aren’t taking any chances.
“We’re packing things up, we’re making hotel reservations in Orlando, we’re trying to be as prepared as we can,” Southwest Florida resident Leah Gal said.
Across the state preparations are underway, which is leading to long lines. Some waited hours to get free sandbags at a fire station. Water, food, fuel, and tools to weather the storm are also in high demand.
Those in Baltimore with family members in Irma’s path are trying to fly home to prepare for evacuations should the worst occur.
“I hope it misses everything and this travel is for naught,” said Raymond White, whose mother lives in Fort Myers. “My mom has been asked to evacuate. She has two dogs are really can’t fly with them, so I’m trying to go down there and I’m going to help her drive back.”
“It is scary. I mean we’ve seen what’s going with Harvey so at this point you’re just kinda hoping it stops,” said Tsitsi Muhoma, who has family across Florida.
WJZ also learned a Carnival Pride ship that left out of Baltimore had to stop in Charleston, South Carolina to avoid the storm. The ship’s itinerary has also been adjusted.
Travel experts say for others whose trips may be cancelled, there’s no reason to fret.
“It would never be a complete loss. The vacation companies are too proactive about giving credits,” said Scott Babus of Going Places Travel. “People are being compensated and they’re being very very generous about it.”
In a statement to WJZ, Royal Caribbean says they’ve cancelled some cruises that could be impacted by the storm.
The last major storm to hit Florida was 2005’s Wilma, its eye cutting through the state’s southern third as it packed winds of 120 mph (193 kph). Five people died.
A new tropical storm also formed in the Atlantic on Tuesday, to the east of Irma. The hurricane center said Tropical Storm Jose was about 1,505 miles (2,420 kilometers) east of the Lesser Antilles with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph). It was moving west-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph) and was expected to become a hurricane by Friday.
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