As Irma Approaches, A Nervous Florida Braces For Impact

Like a slow-moving stalker in a horror movie, Hurricane Irma is now less than 650km from Miami and making steady progress. The exceptionally-powerful storm has triggered a mass exodus from Florida, one of the largest evacuations in US history.

GOES-16 captured this stunning — if not horrific — image of Hurricane Irma passing the eastern end of Cuba at about 8:00 am ET on September 8, 2017. (Image: NOAA)

Irma, now downgraded to a still-very-powerful Category 4 storm (it could intensify to a Category 5 again in the next few days), is currently located about 435km east of Caibarien, Cuba. It's moving in a west-northwest direction at a leisurely pace of 22km/h. Forecasters say the storm will move through the north coast of Cuba and central Bahamas later today and into tomorrow, arriving near the Florida Keys and the southern Florida Peninsula by Sunday morning local time.

The storm, which has killed at least 19 in the Caribbean, may have been demoted a notch, but it's still deadly dangerous. Sustained winds are being clocked at 240km/h, and with higher gusts. Fluctuations in Irma's strength are possible, but the storm is expected to remain at least a Category 4 by the time it reaches Florida in about 36 hours. Irma is joined by hurricane Jose to the east, now a dangerous Category four storm itself. As Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach pointed out in a tweet earlier today, this is the first time in recorded history that two 240-plus km/h hurricanes have been recorded in the Atlantic at the same time.

In Florida, storm surge warnings have been extended from Jupiter Inlet northward to Sebastian Inlet and from Bonita Beach northward to Venice. Stretches in Southwest Florida between Captiva and Cape Sable can expect storm surges as high as 1.8 to 3.7m. Many other outlying areas are bracing for waters as high as 1 to 3m. President Trump's resort, Mar-a-Lago, is at risk of flooding.

"The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast in areas of onshore winds, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves," warned NOAA's National Hurricane Center in a public advisory. "Surge-related flooding depends on the relative timing of the surge and the tidal cycle, and can vary greatly over short distances."

The Bahamas, which could take a direct hit, is bracing for 3 to 4.5m storm surges, while the Turks and Caicos Islands are preparing for equally high rises in water level.

At a news conference held earlier today, Florida Governor Rick Scott told people to flee from mandatory evacuation zones immediately, and he didn't mince words. "We cannot save you when the storm starts," he said. "So, if you are in an evacuation zone and you need help, you need to tell us now."

Redness is badness: Google traffic map at 1:30PM ET (3:30AM AEST) today.

Scott's government has directed all public schools, colleges and universities to close through Monday (at least) to make them available as emergency shelters, and as places from which recovery efforts can be staged. Over 7000 national guard members have been dispatched, and they will likely be busy in the coming days with the many expected rescue efforts. Officials are worried that the storm could produce result in large swaths of areas becoming uninhabitable for weeks, if not months.

A mass exodus is currently underway in Florida, one that's poised to go down as the largest evacuation in US history. The Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach areas, where mandatory evacuation orders are in place, are home to a combined six million people. Gov Scott said Floridians are "facing a life-threatening storm" and "every family must prepare to evacuate".

Heavy traffic travelling northbound on Interstate 75 in Forrest Park, south of Atlanta. (Image: AP)

Thousands of cars are now clogging roads, and motorists are clamoring for fuel. Some petrol stations are running out, and Florida Highway Patrol is having to escort fuel tankers such that they can reach resupply petrol stations. Some of the more heavily travelled throughways include Interstates 95, 75 and the Florida Turnpike.

Some Florida residents and tourists have opted to fly out, creating heavy volumes of prospective travellers at airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere. Both American Airlines and United Airlines are waiving change fees for all flyers affected by Irma.

Cars line up in long lines waiting to get sandbags in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Orlando, Florida. Lines of vehicles stretched for kilometres and many waited several hours to get the sandbags. (Image: AP)

Miami has turned into a veritable ghost town, with many having left the city or having relocated to shelters. The Miami Herald is reporting that nearly 6000 Miami residents have already evacuated themselves to shelters.

A worker installs wood shutters on a business in the Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami. (Image: AP)

There is so much happening right now that it's hard to keep up. This is obviously a developing story, and Gizmodo will do its best to keep you up to speed on what's happening over the course of the next few hours and days.

[NOAA, CNN, Miami Herald]

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