MIAMI — Irma trained its sights on Florida and officials warned more than 5 million people that time was running out to evacuate ahead of the deadly hurricane that could be back up to Category 5 when it comes ashore near Key West tomorrow morning.
Forecasters adjusted the storm’s potential track more toward the west coast of the Sunshine State, away from the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people.
“This is a storm that will kill you if you don’t get out of the way,” National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said. “Everybody’s going to feel this one.”
Irma killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean and left thousands homeless as it devastated small resort islands known for their warm, turquoise water.
In Florida, gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars drove on the southbound lanes.
“We’re getting out of this state,” said Manny Zuniga, who left his home in Miami at midnight Thursday to avoid the gridlock. “Irma is going to take all of Florida.”
Despite driving overnight, he still took 12 hours to reach Orlando — a trip that normally takes four hours. From there, he and his wife, two children, two dogs and a ferret were headed to Arkansas.
In one of the country’s largest evacuations, about 5.6 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state’s population — were ordered to evacuate and another 540,000 were told to leave the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said people fleeing could drive slowly in the shoulder lane on highways. He hasn’t reversed the southbound lanes because he said they were needed to deliver gas and supplies.
“If you are planning to leave and do not leave tonight, you will have to ride out this extremely dangerous storm at your own risk,” Scott said.
Several small, poor communities around Lake Okeechobee in the south-central part of Florida were added to the evacuation list because the lake may overflow — but the governor said engineers expect the protective dike to hold up. Many people in the area said they wouldn’t leave because they either had no transportation or nowhere to go.
Disney World parks will close early today and remain shuttered through Monday, as will Universal Orlando and Sea World.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he planned for enough space to hold 100,000 people before the storm arrives, although most shelters were only beginning to fill yesterday.
Police in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Davie said a 57-year-old man who had been hired to install hurricane shutters Thursday morning died after falling about 15 feet from a ladder and hitting his head on a pool deck. The man’s name wasn’t immediately released.
Forecasters predicted a storm surge of 6 to 12 feet above ground level along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Keys.
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