As Caribbean islands pummeled by Hurricane Irma began to grapple with the monster storm’s toll Thursday, nervous residents of South Florida packed highways seeking safer ground amid forecasts warning that Irma posed an increasing threat to the highly populated area.
The National Hurricane Center on Thursday issued a hurricane watch for the southernmost part of Florida, the first such alert Irma has prompted in the mainland United States. A storm surge watch, which warned of potentially life-threatening levels of water, was also issued for the southern part of the state, an area that includes the Florida Keys, which a day earlier had begun evacuations.
Irma’s Category 5 force pinwheeled through the Caribbean, leaving a wake of leveled neighborhoods, ravaged seafronts and at least 11 deaths, according to news reports. The storm is grinding onward toward the Bahamas with winds hitting 180 mph and higher gusts registered, according to the hurricane center, which warned of storm surges capable of swallowing huge sections of the coast.
After the Bahamas, Irma’s expected path takes aim at Florida, including the ribbon of cities, dense suburbs and swampland that are home to more than 6 million people from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade counties.
“Look at the size of this storm,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). “It’s powerful and deadly.” He said evacuations may stretch “coast to coast” from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. With potentially millions of people hitting the road to escape, Scott said emergency efforts were underway to keep fuel shipments moving to gas stations.
Increasing evacuations were getting underway across South Florida. On Thursday morning, Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous, began evacuating people along the coast. Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said evacuations would begin there at midday along the eastern stretch of the county.
By Thursday morning, as Irma’s eye was moving north off the island of Hispaniola, aid workers in Haiti — a vulnerable nation already devastated by a major earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — were preparing for yet another potential disaster.
Concern centered on Haiti’s flood-prone north, which was expected to be hardest hit. Haiti raised its hurricane alert level to red, its highest, and the north coast remained under a hurricane watch as the central coast faced the threat of tropical storm winds and rain.
Nevertheless, aid groups said the national hurricane response appeared to be slow. Many evacuations in the north were set to unfold as rains rapidly approached and low-quality shelters were still being finished.
School was canceled across the country as national warnings went out through social media, radio and television. In some remote towns, word to take shelter was being spread largely via local officials with bullhorns. Though Irma’s eye was on track to pass offshore, even a glancing blow could flood roads and bridges, bring mudslides and topple rickety housing, dealing yet another setback to the hemisphere’s poorest nation.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Joel Achenbach, Mark Berman and Francisco Alvarado