With the window closing fast for anyone wanting to escape, Hurricane Irma hurtled toward Florida with 200 km/h winds Saturday after battering Puero Rico, the Dominican Republic and the northern coast of Cuba.
“You need to leave — not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the evacuation zones ahead of the storm’s predicted arrival on Sunday morning.
For days, the forecast had made it look as if the Miami metropolitan area of six million people could get hit head-on with the catastrophic and long-dreaded Big One, but the hurricane’s track has shifted.
The new course threatened everything from Tampa Bay’s bustling twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg to Naples’ mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center’s sprawling compound of modest retirement homes and Sanibel Island’s shell-filled beaches.
Nearly seven million people across the state were under evacuation orders. More than 50,000 people in Florida were seeking shelter Saturday in schools, community centres and churches.
The westward swing in the hurricane’s projected path overnight caught many on Florida’s Gulf coast off-guard. By late morning, few businesses in St. Petersburg had even put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals groused about the change in the forecast.
“For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we’re now told it’s coming up the west coast,” said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. “As usual, the weather man … I don’t know why they’re paid.”
Tom Brock, of St. Petersburg, said his home is in a no-flood zone so he felt safe — so much so that he invited friends from the Miami and Florida Keys area to take shelter at his place.
“Two days ago, Miami looked like it was getting hit. They moved from there to my house, and now we look like we’re in the eye here,” he told CBC News Network Saturday.
He said he stocked up on supplies and has hurricane shutters on the house.
“If we have to leave here, we will, but the plan is right now to stay in a secure home. I would rather be here than stuck on the road,” he said.