Floridians flee ahead of Irma

A police car passes a boarded-up hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, where thousands are fleeing ahead of the imminent arrival of Hurricane Irma. (Bloomberg Photo)

MIAMI: The window for Florida residents to safely evacuate narrowed on Saturday as the outer bands of Hurricane Irma blew into the southern part of the state on a predicted path for landfall southwest of the heavily populated Miami metro area.

The enormous storm weakened slightly to Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 215 km/h, but it was expected to pick up strength again as it takes aim at Florida. The storm was forecast to reach the Florida Keys on Sunday morning local time before moving up the state's Gulf Coast.

The US National Weather Service said damaging winds were moving into areas including Key Biscayne and Coral Gables on Saturday morning, while gusts of up to 90 km/h were reported on Virginia Key off Miami.

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 leave, and another 540,000 were ordered out on the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.

"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," Florida Governor Rick Scott said.

The governor urged everybody in the Keys, where forecasters expect the storm to hit first, to get out.

Ray Scarborough and girlfriend Leah Etmanczyk left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north with her parents and three big dogs to stay with relatives in Orlando. Scarborough was 12 when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and remembers lying on the floor in a hallway as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house.

"They said this one is going to be bigger than Andrew. When they told me that, that's all I needed to hear," said Scarborough, a 37-year-old boat captain. "That one tore everything apart."

Their house in the Keys, up on two-metre stilts, has flooded before.

"This isn't out first rodeo. Andrew was a wicked storm. Wilma was a wicked storm. This one is going to be worse. Then we'll go home and rebuild, like we always do," said Etmanczyk, a 29-year-old teacher.

Forecasters adjusted the storm's potential track more toward the west coast of Florida, away from the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, meaning "a less costly, a less deadly storm", University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said.

Nevertheless, forecasters warned that its hurricane-force winds were so wide they could reach from coast to coast, testing the country's third most populous state, which has undergone rapid development and passed more stringent hurricane-proof building codes in the last decade or so.

"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, gasoline 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 in 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.

Andrew razed Miami's suburbs with winds topping 265 km/h, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. Almost all mobile homes in its path were obliterated. The damage totaled $26 billion in Florida's most-populous areas. At least 40 people were killed in Florida.

With winds that peaked at 300 km/h, Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.

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