Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday implored Floridians and tourists planning to evacuate in advance of deadly Hurricane Irma to do so now, before winds and surging waters arrive later this week.
“This is serious, and we cannot take chances. It is life-threatening.” Scott said after receiving a 5 p.m. update on Irma at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “This is not a storm you can sit and wait through.”
Two fatalities have already been reported in the Caribbean from the storm, which for the second day posted maximum sustained winds of 185 mph.
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Scott repeated his warning that the storm could be larger than Hurricane Andrew, a devastating Category 5 hurricane that 25 years ago raced across South Florida with 165 mph winds, destroying more than 63,500 homes, leaving $26.5 billion in damages and 65 people dead in Florida.
More than 25,000 people have already been evacuated from Monroe County, and tolls have been lifted across the state to help speed traffic.
“Listen to your local officials for evacuation orders,” Scott said. “If you're told to evacuate, get out quickly, don't wait. The roads will fill up quickly, so you need to go now.”
In Jacksonville, Mayor Lenny Curry encouraged people who live in zones A and B to begin evacuating. Interstate 95 was at a crawl Wednesday evening as many people headed north to try to escape Irma's path.
At one rest stop, Nancy Quin told News4Jax that she spent the day dropping her baby niece off in George. She said looking at the latest models for Hurricane Irma made her get on the road early. But despite that, Quin said, she noticed the roads were already packed.
"Be patient because there's a lot of panic out there right now. You can see it and you can feel it. Just try to be a little patient," said Quin, who's a Jacksonville resident.
At a rest stop in St. Johns County, News4Jax met Ralph Ibera, who was on his way to pick up his daughter from school in Orlando. Ibera, a Jacksonville resident, said he thinks people are evacuating early after seeing the destruction in Texas from Harvey.
"Because of everything in Houston, I think people are just not taking any chances," he said. "So I don't think people are going to sit there and not be prepared."
Also in St. Johns County, many people said they had trouble finding gas. Owens gas station on U.S. 1 in St. Augustine sold more than 10,000 gallons on Wednesday. At a nearby Sunoco gas station, cars were lined up down the street as drivers waited to fill up.
"I was here for the last storm when Hurricane Matthew came last year," said Beverly Montgomery. "I don't want to go through that again."
Some of the gas stations planned to get more fuel Wednesday night.
"It's no joke. When you're a Floridian, it's all sun and games all throughout the year. But when it's hurricane season, you have to take it very serious when you're on the coast," Janna McSwain said.
Scott, whose family remains in Naples, spent most of the day traveling through South Florida, speaking on the phone with government officials and business leaders and making appearances on national media.
It's still too early to determine where the storm will hit and the path it will take, which is causing some issues for authorities setting up staging areas for post-storm relief efforts.
The state was working to get more fuel delivered to gas stations due to increased demand. Scott tweeted about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, saying the Environmental Protection Agency had approved an emergency fuel waiver, allowing more fuel to enter Florida quickly.
“You can understand what people are doing. I'm asking everybody to just take what you need,” Scott said. “The bottleneck is not that we don't have enough fuel, the bottleneck is being able to get the trucks refueled to get them back to the stations.”
James Miller, communications director for the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said the state has had “sporadic shortages” as people rushed to fuel up, but a seven-day supply of gas is readily available.
“There is plenty of gas, we're just trying to get it there as quickly as possible and as safely as possible prior to the storm coming,” Miller said.
Irma, on track to start impacting Florida on Friday, passed over Barbuda, St. Barthelemy and St. Martin before moving over portions of the British and U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday.
The forecast models from the National Hurricane Center show a potential northern turn after reaching the Florida Keys on Friday, with Irma starting to run up closer to the state's east coast while maintaining its major storm classification. But the cone of potential impact still covers most of the state.
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“Direct impacts from wind, storm surge and rainfall are possible in the Florida Keys and portions of the Florida peninsula beginning later this week and this weekend,” the Hurricane Center reported. “However, given the forecast uncertainty at these time ranges, it is too soon to specify the location and magnitude of these impacts.”
Irma is one of three hurricanes now spinning in the Atlantic region, but the only one considered a direct threat to Florida. Hurricane Katia was east of Tampico, Mexico, and Hurricane Jose was about 1,675 miles east of the Lesser Antilles.
Scott, who on Monday declared a state of emergency throughout Florida, activated an additional 900 members of the Florida National Guard on Wednesday, bringing the number to 1,000. Another 6,000 National Guard members are expected to report to duty on Friday.
Scott asked Tuesday for pre-landfall assistance from the federal government and ordered state offices closed on Friday.
President Donald Trump approved Scott's request for an emergency declaration on Wednesday.
The declaration authorized the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts, including the equipment and resources needed to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.
The order also provides 75 percent federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures.
Meanwhile, Florida's U.S. senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, jointly called on Senate leaders to add extra money for Hurricane Irma to a $7.85 billion funding package approved by the House on Wednesday for Hurricane Harvey.
“This massive Category 5 storm has the potential to cause catastrophic destruction throughout the state, and we are deeply concerned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will not have the resources it needs to respond if Congress doesn't act soon,” the Florida lawmakers wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
- State House and Senate leaders canceled committee meetings scheduled for next week. Committees were expected to meet for the first time in advance of the 2018 legislative session.
- The Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Board of Governors approved an emergency measure that gives staff of the state-backed agency more authority to enter into contracts and make purchases of goods and services to prepare for and respond to Irma. The board also approved a series of pending contracts so that more than 800 independent adjusters, in addition to Citizens employees, will be able to serve catastrophe claims.
- Key West International Airport is expected to close, but all other airports and seaports remained open.
- Monroe County issued mandatory evacuation orders for all visitors and residents.
- The state is setting up a staging area for supplies in Orlando.
- Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam announced that more than 100 Florida Forest Service workers, as well as aircraft, off-road vehicles and mobile command posts, are preparing to respond to Hurricane Irma and assist in search and rescue missions, debris clearing and supply distribution.
- The South Florida Water Management District announced that operation of navigation locks on Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River will be suspended at noon on Friday until after the storm. The district, which serves 16 counties, also will close all public lands it manages for recreation starting Friday.
- Weekend visitations have been canceled at all Florida Department of Corrections institutions.
- Many public schools, colleges and universities throughout Central and South Florida are shutting down through the weekend.