(TNS) - With state and local officials urging South Florida residents to heed mandatory evacuation orders from coastal areas, many Miami-Dade residents in the direct path of Hurricane Irma’s projected landfall were stuck outside shelters that had yet to open on Friday.
“Opening a shelter is not as easy as people think,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said during a noon conference at the county’s Emergency Operations Center in Doral.
Gimenez said the county, which announced evacuation orders Thursday, has never before undertaken such a mass sheltering effort, capable of housing as many as 100,000 people.
“We have never done that in Miami-Dade County history,” he said. “This is an unprecedented event. We are now rewriting the book as we go.”
Before opening hurricane shelters, the county must coordinate with Miami-Dade schools before opening shelters since many of them are located at local schools. He said schools must bring in cafeteria workers, principals and volunteers.
“We have run out of Red Cross volunteers,” Gimenez said. “So now we are going to be utilizing the National Guard in the additional shelters.”
At least eight shelters in Miami-Dade and 14 in Broward opened on Thursday. No one should be asked for identification or legal status at shelters; unauthorized immigrants in Texas in some cases didn’t seek help for fear of deportation during Hurricane Harvey.
In Broward County, two of the 14 shelters were already filled and more than 6,000 calls had been logged to the county's help hotline as of Friday.
Broward, which has nearly one million residents, was gearing up to open more shelters on Friday, said Mayor Barbara Sharief.
“Irma is now a category 4 hurricane, but make no mistake: We are in a serious situation with this very dangerous and damaging storm,” Sharief said.
All of Broward is under a hurricane warning and five cities (Fort Lauderdale, Hallandale, Deerfield Beach, Pompano and Hollywood) are under a storm surge warning – meaning they are expecting surges from five to 18 feet.. The county has opened Everglades High School in Miramar as a second pet shelter, starting at 1 p.m. Friday.
The last flight will leave Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport at 7:45 p.m. Friday. Officials said 276 flights have been canceled and at least 76 have been delayed.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking at Broward’s emergency operations center Friday, cautioned people about trying to venture north now. He said virtually every portion of Florida will be affected, and that the traffic and gas shortages may make it impossible to travel without getting stranded.
“This storm is unprecedented in size,” Rubio said. “Most of the storms we've lived through have hit a community – Miami, Fort Lauderdale. They hit Orlando. This storm is going to impact every major metropolitan area in the third-largest state,'' Rubio said.
As time ran out to flee or finish last-minute preparations ahead of Hurricane Irma, Gov. Rick Scott said Friday morning as he urged residents in mandatory evacuation areas to leave now. At the same time, the Trump administration declared a statewide public health emergency due to the approaching storm.
“It’s a massive storm. It can be devastating,” Scott said on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Last tracked over Eastern Cuba and the Bahamas, Irma is forecast to make landfall in South Florida as a Category 4 hurricane early Sunday morning, although any wobble at this point could still change the storm’s course.
With a monster hurricane bearing down on Miami and a coast with 6 million people, Scott sounded a dire warning for the entire peninsula.
“This thing’s coming,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to go right through the middle of our state.”
In Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, officials urged residents to evacuate from coastal and low-lying areas at life-threatening risk of storm surge, which is predicted to raise water levels from 6 to 12-feet above ground.
Across South Florida early Friday, many highways and roads heading south were empty as stores closed, companies sent workers home and evacuees made their way to emergency shelters. But roads traveling north, and local airports were packed as people continued to try and flee the storm.
Federal officials urged Floridians to take Hurricane Irma seriously.
Speaking in Washington, DC Friday morning with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at his side, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Hurricane Irma will devastate Florida.
“Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or the southeastern United States,” he said, adding that anybody from Alabama to North Carolina should be watching the storm closely.
“It's not a question of if Florida’s going to be impacted,” Long said. “It's a question of how bad Florida's going to be impacted.”
Price said Hurricane Irma also poses a grave threat to the health of Floridians, leading him to declare a public health emergency that makes it easier for physicians and hospitals to provide medical services for people with Medicare and Medicaid — public health insurance programs for the elderly, low-income and disabled.
In addition, Price said the federal healthcare agency has positioned more than 80 workers in South Florida for rapid deployment to local areas and to help plan for medical needs.
“Hurricane Irma has proven to be highly destructive,” said Price, who earlier declared public health emergencies for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands due to Hurricane Irma. Price also declared public health emergencies for Texas and Louisiana due to Hurricane Harvey.
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