This article titled “Florida officials warn Irma will be ‘storm wider than the state'” was written by Richard Luscombe and Ed Pilkington in Miami, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th September 2017 16.47 UTC
Florida residents were racing to complete final preparations on Friday as Hurricane Irma, slightly weakened from its peak but still packing enormous destructive power, cast a dark shadow over the southern half of the Sunshine State.
In a filmed message to the nation, Donald Trump called Irma “a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential”.
After leaving a trail of wreckage and claiming at least 23 lives during its four-day rampage across the Caribbean, Irma was forecast to take a significant turn north and strike at one of the most populous areas of the US in the early hours of Sunday.
About 7 million people lay directly in the path of the monster storm and with winds of 150mph or greater spreading more than 70 miles from its center, officials warned that the whole of Florida was in the danger zone.
“The storm is wider than the state,” Rick Scott, the Florida governor, warned at a morning briefing. “The majority of Florida will have major hurricane impacts, with deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds. We are running out of time. The storm is almost here, a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.”
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami placed the southern half of Florida under a hurricane warning in the early hours of Friday and reinforced Scott’s dire warnings in its late-morning advisory.
“There is the danger of life threatening storm surge inundation in southern Florida and the Florida Keys in the next 36 hours,” wrote Lixion Avila, a senior specialist at the NHC.
“In particular, the threat of significant storm surge flooding along the south-west coast of Florida has increased and 6ft to 12ft of inundation above ground level is possible. Everyone in these areas should take all actions to protect life and property.”
The NHC noted that Irma’s sustained winds had dropped below the 185mph peak that tore apart Caribbean islands including Barbuda, St Martin, Anguilla and the US and British Virgin Islands, but predicted the storm would still hit Florida as a strong category 4 hurricane.
Close to a million Floridians in low-lying and coastal areas were under a mandatory evacuation order and several major highways leading north, towards Georgia and Alabama, were choked with traffic.
Scott acknowledged that gas shortages remained a problem and requested suppliers to increase deliveries and remain open as long as possible. Fuel resupply tankers received police escorts in some areas but many petrol stations were closed with their stocks exhausted.
Those who could not leave filled shelters around south Florida, ready to ride out the storm.
One major concern was a possible breach of an ageing dike on Lake Okeechobee, the 730 sq-mile lake in central Florida that supplies fresh water to the south of the state. Scott said the US army corps of engineers had assured him the structural integrity of the dike was solid but that winds would push water over the top. As a precaution, he said, he had ordered the evacuation of nearby communities.
All 7,000 members of Florida’s national guard were activated and utility companies said they had positioned emergency crews around the state to move quickly and work on restoring power that they warned in some areas could be out for weeks.
“We keep talking about the big one: when is it coming, when is it coming?” said Roman Gastesi, administrator of Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys archipelago stretching 100 miles off the southern coast. “This, folks, is the big one.”
In a series of tweets, Trump said the full resources of the US government and Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) were ready to support recovery and relief efforts.
In his video statement, Trump added: “I ask everyone in the storm’s path to be vigilant and to heed all recommendations from government officials and law enforcement. Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our people.
“When the time comes, we will restore, recover and rebuild together as Americans. America stands united and I mean united.”
The department of homeland security, meanwhile, released a statement saying it would suspend non-criminal immigration enforcement operations for the duration of the storm.
In Miami, there was an eerie calm under the pristine blue and largely cloudless sky that is Florida’s trademark and main attraction. The most visible signs of the pending threat were empty petrol stations, pumps enclosed in yellow tape, giving them the air of a police crime scene.
Those petrol outlets that remained open were subject to long lines of hungry cars. Mary Schaunaman, 56, was filling up nine gas canisters, each holding five litres, sufficient she said to keep a generator at her home going for a week.
“I’m anxious, nervous,” she said. “Extremely. It’s just the unknown of what’s coming.”
Supermarkets were preparing to shut their doors at noon on Friday, with supplies of bottled water, torches and fresh food running out. Advice to residents was to lay in three to five days’ supply of food, water and petrol.
Holidaymakers were turned into refugees overnight. Norman McClain, 31, from Nashville, Tennessee, cut short a cruise aboard the Enchantment of the Seas that had been due to visit the Bahamas and Key West.
“It could be worse. I’m trying to keep optimistic,” he said.
Governor Scott warned residents and tourists alike that the window of opportunity to get to safety was closing fast.
“I’m a dad, I’m a grandfather, I love my family and can’t imagine life without them,” he said. “Do not put yourself or your family’s lives at risk. If you’ve been ordered to evacuate, please go. Today is the day to do the right thing for your family to get inland to safety.
“We will make it through this together.”
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