Hurricane Irma — still swirling with Category 5 winds — could make a direct hit on Florida within days. And residents are preparing for a whopper of a storm, whether or not they plan on evacuating their homes.
Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday morning that Miami-Dade County should prepare for “deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds.”
“If you’re in an evacuation area, do not wait to get out,” Scott warned. “This thing is bigger than our entire state right now, so take this seriously.”
He estimated that 31,000 people had fled the Florida Keys as of 6 p.m. ET Wednesday. Scott is expected to activate the entire Florida Army and Air National Guard — all 7,000 members — by Friday to prepare for Irma.
Because the hurricane is “moving fast,” Scott said he doesn’t expect Florida to get the same amount of rain as Texas received.
On Tuesday, he suspended all tolls on Florida roads.
As a peninsula, Florida offers only so many ways out of Irma’s path, and traffic is likely a factor in residents’ evacuation calculus. The Miami Herald reports that Interstates 95 and 75, as well as the Florida Turnpike, are all increasingly congested, with traffic slow from Palm Beach County to Orlando on the turnpike.
A gasoline availability tracker on GasBuddy.com showed many gas stations throughout the Florida Keys and South Florida were out of fuel.
The governor urged people to not take more gas than they’ll use. “We’re moving as much fuel through the system as fast as possible,” Scott said, according to the Herald. “I’ve said it many times, and I can’t say it enough: Please only take what you need.”
The Miami New Times shared a video of a man wearing a fanny pack pulling a gun on another motorist at a Mobil gas station full of people prepping for the storm on Wednesday night.
But there were also heart-warming scenes, like a man from the local Pinecrest Bakery passing out cafecito to people waiting in line for gas.
In the Florida Keys, residents have been ordered to leave.
“If you stay, you think you’re a tough guy, then you’re on your own,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said, according to the Herald. “Don’t expect us to come get you.”
Key West Transit ended its regular bus service on Wednesday night, and is now providing evacuation services: transporting riders to a shelter at Florida International University in Miami.
As she filled her Kia Soul at a Speedway station in Florida City, Audrey Kokenzie of Key West told The Reporter that this storm is the first since Hurricane Georges in 1998 that worried her enough to leave.
“I didn’t want to leave, but we didn’t want to be there if another Andrew happens,” she said. Hurricane Andrew was the last Category 5 storm to hit the U.S., slamming South Florida in 1992.
But Bill Burkhardt of Key Largo told the newspaper he planned to stay. “I’ve been through four hurricanes,” he said.
Miami-Dade County ordered a mandatory evacuation for 100,000 residents on barrier islands, low-lying areas, and mobile homes at 7 a.m. on Thursday. It’s the first mandatory evacuation the county has ordered in 12 years, the Herald reports.
The county is divided into zones based on risk of storm surge. So far Zone A and part of Zone B have been ordered to evacuate; an evacuation order for the rest of Zone B would affect an additional 300,000 people.
Then there are the cranes – construction cranes. The New Times reports that dozens of cranes used to construct the city’s array of luxury condo towers are designed to withstand hurricanes – but not the likes of Irma.
“There are 20 to 25 construction cranes in the City of Miami. These tower cranes are designed to withstand winds up to 145 miles per hour, not a Category 5 hurricane,” Maurice Pons, deputy director of Miami’s building department told the newspaper. “The crane’s arm has to remain loose; it is not tied down. The arm’s counterbalance is very heavy and poses a potential danger if the arm collapses.”
He urged residents not to ride out the hurricane in high-rises next to construction cranes.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said that her office had received 45 complaints of price inflation at Chevron stations in the state, Reuters reports.
“You cannot inflate prices during a time of a hurricane for essential commodities — food, water, fuel, etc.,” she told Fox News channel. “So Chevron, if you’re watching me right now, you need to call us and tell us why your prices are inflated in South Florida , because in Tallahassee they’re not, in Tampa they’re not, in South Florida they’re high and there’s no excuse for that.”
Meanwhile, Jet Blue announced it was waiving change fees and capping seats on direct flights at $99, Yahoo Finance reported on Wednesday. American Airlines quickly announced a similar initiative.
“Given that many Floridians are struggling to get out of harm’s way, this is welcome news,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson wrote in an email to Yahoo. “I hope more airlines do the right thing and follow suit.”
NPR reporter Hansi Lo Wang contributed to this report.