(TNS) - Hurricane Irma continued its deadly sweep through the Caribbean on Friday, as residents of Florida wait with frazzled nerves and growing fears, wondering just how bad the storm will be.
The current path of this monster storm has it making landfall sometime early Sunday morning and continuing up the middle of the state, draining life from the Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds before it exits the state into Georgia on Monday morning. The exact spot of where the storm will come ashore remains a moving target, even sliding slightly to the west, according to the latest report from the National Hurricane Center.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott placed the highest urgency on the impact Irma will have on the state. He told residents in evacuation areas to leave and then carried it even further.
“All Floridians should be prepared to evacuate soon,” Scott said. “Remember Hurricane Andrew [in 1992] was one of the worst storms in the history of Florida. Irma is more devastating on its current path. … This is a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.”
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine called it a “nuclear storm.”
The sense of desperation among those who plan to ride out the storm could be found at many spots throughout South Florida.
Some 500 people in need of plywood were in line at the Home Depot near downtown Miami, just outside the evacuation zone. Many of them lived in neighborhoods that had been ordered to clear out, but they planned to stay in their homes.
The store was letting in just 20 people at a time. It had 10 police officers on site working to keep everyone calm. By midmorning, the plywood was all gone. The line was buzzing with complaints in Spanish about price gouging at a different hardware store down the street, which was charging $45 a sheet for plywood it had left in stock.
Customers lined up at the Home Depot in the middle-income, largely Hispanic neighborhood stayed in their places, hopeful another delivery truck would arrive soon.
Among them was Beatrice Ayalla, a 60-year-old who had been there since 2 a.m. There were 50 people ahead of her in line. “They were selling plywood, but then they finished,” she said. “They say now the truck will arrive in an hour and a half or two hours.”
Unlike Hurricane Harvey in South Texas, Irma will be faster-moving, mitigating the kind of severe inland flooding that crippled the Houston area. However, for coastal cities such as Miami and Miami Beach, a storm surge of possibly 10 feet would be catastrophic.
Irma is currently set to enter the state to the west of Miami, putting the city in even more peril as the most dangerous and powerful part of a hurricane is the northeast quadrant.
The storm is about the size of Texas, with hurricane force winds extending 140 miles out from the eye, which is almost 20 miles wide. The lower portion of the state is about 150 miles across.
The storm weakened slightly overnight as it chugged at 14 mph north of Cuba and south of the Bahamas. Any hope it would shift slightly to the south and be weakened by the mountains of northern Cuba was dashed as Irma continued on its west-northwesterly path.
Florida has been under a state of emergency most of the week, and Scott closed all schools Friday through Monday. Many of the schools will serve as shelters.
Florida, Florida State, Central Florida and South Florida universities all canceled their football games.
Hurricane warnings went into effect around 11 p.m. on Thursday for all of South Florida and extended into the middle of the state. The outer bands of Irma are expected to creep into Florida by Saturday morning, intensifying during the day.
Mandatory evacuations are in place for most of the coastal areas up and down the east coast of Florida. However, mandatory doesn’t mean you have to go, only that you can’t expect to have any safety or medical resources if something goes wrong.
The evacuation has targeted about 650,000 people. Roads out of the area have been intermittently choked with cars. The window to evacuate is closing, as airports are expected to shut down Friday night.
Scott also ordered the evacuation of seven cities near Lake Okeechobee.
But not everyone has the means or temperament to evacuate.
In northwest Miami, just blocks from the Little River Canal is a mobile home park full of Haitian and Latin American immigrants, most of whom do not have the ability to leave.
Ernius Nonord, a 71-year-old Haitian who doesn't work anymore because of a serious leg injury, isn’t going anywhere. He defiantly waves his hands, saying, “It’s going to be OK.”
He’s been in Miami since 1979 and has been through a few hurricanes. Nonord just shakes his head when asked whether he’s scared.
“I believe that God will keep me safe,” Nonord said looking at the sun-splashed palm trees near his trailer. “But if I had big money, I would go stay in big house.”
His neighbors, Leon and Muryada Noel, who have a 4-year-old daughter, also are staying.
“It’s going to be OK,” Leon said, as his daughter sat in his lap. “The water only come to here,” as he motions with his hand to ankle-level.
Leon, a taxi driver, said he wouldn’t leave even if he had the money to do it. He’s staying because he doesn’t think it will be that bad.
“Nothing’s going to happen,” he said.
It’s that kind of thinking that has officials worried.
As Florida prepared for the worst, many islands in the Caribbean already have experienced it. The death toll is at 18 and is expected to rise, with Category 4 Hurricane Jose advancing right behind Irma.
The Turks and Caicos Islands were dealing with Irma on Friday morning. The island of Barbuda was almost destroyed by the storm but remarkably had only one fatality.
Many Americans were left stranded on some of the islands that populate that area of the Caribbean. It may be days before actual damage in some of the smaller islands is known.
Puerto Rico was spared the worst part of the storm but still has more than 1 million people without power.
Times staff writer Halper and special correspondent Neuhaus reported from Miami. Times staff writer Cherwa reported from Orlando.
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