Irma took direct aim at Florida on Friday and officials ordered evacuations for at least 1.4 million people along the Southeast coast, as the monstrous Category 4 hurricane spun along a long-feared path right through the heart of the peninsula.
Irma was a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph (250 kph) — just below highest Category 5 status — and is forecast to remain at about that strength when it comes ashore someplace south of Miami on Sunday. The storm killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean and left thousands homeless as it devastated small resort islands in its path.
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.
Manny Zuniga left his home in Miami at midnight Thursday to avoid the traffic gridlock that he’d seen on television. It still took him 12 hours to get 230 miles (370 kilometers) to Orlando — a trip that normally takes four hours.
“We’re getting out of this state,” he said of his wife, two children, two dogs and a ferret. “Irma is going to take all of Florida.”
Tony Marcellus racked his brain to figure out a way to get his 67-year-old mother and 85-year-old grandfather out of their home five blocks from the ocean in West Palm Beach. He lives 600 miles away in Atlanta. He checked flights but found nothing and rental cars were sold out, so he settled on a modern method of evacuation.
He hired an Uber to pick them up and drive them 170 miles to Orlando, where he met them to take them to Atlanta. He gave the driver a nice tip.
“I have peace of mind now,” said Marcellus’ mother, Celine Jean. “I’ve been worried sick for days.”
Across Florida and Georgia, about 1.4 million people were ordered to leave their homes. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave.
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.
Several small communities around Lake Okeechobee in the south-central part of Florida were added to the evacuation list because the lake may overflow — but Scott added that engineers expect the protective dike to hold up.
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 on Friday.
“You don’t have to go a long way. You can go to a shelter in your county,” Scott said.
The latest forecast shifted the most powerful part of the storm to the west of the Miami metropolitan area that is home to some 6 million people, but hurricane-force winds are still likely there.
“Irma is likely to make landfall in Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center,” the hurricane center said in its forecast.
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 (5 meters) from a ladder and hitting his head on a pool deck. The man’s name wasn’t immediately released.
Disney World parks will close early Saturday and remain shuttered through Monday, as will Universal Orlando and Sea World.
The last major hurricane — a storm with winds of at least 111 mph (180 kph) — to hit Florida was Wilma in 2005. Its eye cut through the state’s southern third with winds of 120 mph (193 kph). Five people died.
Andrew slammed into Florida as a Category 5 storm in 1992 and at the time was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history with damages of $26.5 billion.
For Irma, forecasters predicted a storm surge of 6 to 12 feet above ground level along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Keys. As much as a foot of rain could fall across the state, with isolated spots receiving 20 inches.
With winds that peaked at 185 mph (300 kph), Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.
Irma’s weakening comes at a cost. When that happened, its hurricane-force wind field expanded greatly, to about 110 miles (180 kilometers) wide, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private service Weather Underground.
“It’s a big storm,” Masters said. “It’s not as big as Katrina, but it is definitely a large hurricane now.”
Even as forecasts showed the storm’s center could enter Georgia far inland after churning up the Florida peninsula, Gov. Nathan Deal urged nearly 540,000 coastal residents to evacuate, noting Irma’s path remains unpredictable. Forecasts show it could enter the state Monday anywhere from the Atlantic coast to the Alabama state line.