MIAMI — Hurricane Irma’s deadly fury threatened to swamp low-lying islands of the Bahamas with a possible 20-foot storm surge Friday as the massive storm moved toward Florida’s doorstep and increasingly threatened to ravage the state with destruction not seen in a generation.
The window to escape the path of Irma in Florida was rapidly closing. Forecasters said Irma will be near South Florida by Sunday morning and could potentially make landfall somewhere there, churning ashore in the wide band between the densely populated Atlantic coast and the 100-mile string of islands from Key Largo to Key West before veering to the north through the state and, potentially, on toward more population centers up the Eastern Seaboard.
“Irma is likely to make landfall in Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center,” the National Hurricane Center said Friday.
Local, state and federal officials offered dire warning after dire warning, making clear how much danger they felt Florida could be facing in the coming days.
“It’s not a question of if Florida’s going to be impacted, it’s a question of how bad Florida’s going to be impacted and where the storm ends up,” William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said at a briefing on Friday.
Long called Irma “a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or some of the southeastern states,” and he urged people from Alabama to North Carolina to monitor and prepare for the storm.
Floridians are familiar with ominous forecasts and hurricane warnings, and many in the state have memories of the brutal impact left behind by Hurricane Andrew — which made landfall as a Category 5 monster in 1992. But when asked about people in South Florida who intend to ride out the storm at home, Long was blunt.
“I can guarantee you that I don’t know anybody in Florida that’s ever experienced what’s about to hit South Florida,” Long said. “They need to get out and listen and heed the warnings.”
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning covering all of South Florida, where local officials have begun ordering people to leave their homes before Irma arrived. On Friday, the center said that Irma’s maximum sustained winds were near 150 mph and that it was expected “to remain a powerful Category 4 hurricane as it approaches Florida.”
“Time is running out,” said Gov. Rick Scott (R), also suggesting that evacuation zones could spread all the way to the state’s northern border after Irma comes ashore. “All Floridians should be prepared to evacuate,” he added.
Fleeing to safer ground was not an option for many in the Caribbean, where Irma had claimed at least 16 lives — a toll expected to increase — and had the prime minister of tiny Barbuda grasping for a word to describe the devastation. The island, said Gaston Browne, was now “rubble.” France’s minister for overseas territories, Annick Girardin, described “scenes of pillaging” on St. Martin as people cleaned out stores and roamed the streets in search of food and water.
On Haiti’s northern coast, the mayor of the city Fort Liberty, Louis Jacques Etienne, called it a “nuclear hurricane.”
“Crops are destroyed, cattle is dead, and my cities are broken. It is bad. Very very bad,” he said.
The hurricane center had said Irma could vacillate between a Category 4 or 5 designation and described it as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm whose ferocious punch included surging seas.
In addition to packing intense power, Irma was also a remarkably big storm, with hurricane-force winds extending some 70 miles from the center — and tropical-storm force winds extending as far as 185 miles out.
A swell of up to 20 feet above high tide was expected in the Turks and Caicos and Bahamas — enough to cover huge portions of an archipelago where the highest point is just over 200 feet above sea level. And another powerful hurricane was following in Irma’s wake.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Jose loomed as another threat, with the National Hurricane Center saying late Friday morning that it was “now an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane” expected to bring life-threatening flooding to the the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands and other areas already left reeling by Irma.
In Florida, the crush to leave had millions of people on the move. Highways were jammed, gas was scarce, airports were packed deluged and mandatory evacuations began to roll out as the first official hurricane watches were issued for the region, which could face destruction not seen since Hurricane Andrew.
Miami-Dade County ordered some mandatory evacuations, including for Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, as well as for areas in the southern half of the county that are not protected by barrier islands. About 660,000 people were evacuated across the county, the largest evacuation order in its history, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez said Friday.
“EVACUATE Miami Beach!” Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine tweeted, later noting in a news release that once winds top 40 mph, first responders will no longer be dispatched on rescue missions here. Adding to the anxiety for those able to leave town, police in Miami shot a knife-wielding man Thursday night who had entered a restricted area at the city’s international airport.
Other evacuation zones were in place across much of South Florida. States of emergency also were declared in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina in anticipation of Irma’s path early next week.
Scott, the Florida governor, ordered that all state offices, public schools, state colleges and state universities be shut down from Friday through Monday “to ensure we have every space available for sheltering and staging.” Many public schools across South Florida and in the Tampa Bay area had already canceled classes, while colleges had also shuttered campuses and rescheduled football games.
Airports around the state said they would suspend flights and cease operations. Publix, the grocery store chain, announced plans to close stores across the state in waves and did not say when they would reopen.
Tom Bossert, homeland security adviser to President Trump, on Friday said that people in or near Irma’s path need to listen to local instructions and take the needed precautions.
“At some point, people are going to be on their own, so to speak, for a period of time during which the flooding, the raining and the wind bear down on them, and they need to be prepared if they are in that path and haven’t taken some action to get themselves in a less dangerous position, to be ready for at least a 72-hour period, that would be my advice, for them to have enough food, water and shelter before the government can get back in,” Bossert said during a White House briefing. “We have pre-deployed and pre-staged, but we can’t actually get to that final point of care until conditions permit.”
Still, adding to the anxiety in Florida was uncertainty about where Irma will make landfall.
“The wild card here is the turn. Anytime a hurricane makes a turn, it introduces uncertainty,” Mark DeMaria, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told The Washington Post in the center’s headquarters in west Miami-Dade County.
DeMaria noted that the computer models have fluctuated modestly, with adjustments in the consensus track of 50 miles or so every day. “But 50 miles onshore versus right of the coast makes a huge difference in impact,” he said.
The combination of Florida’s geography, the pattern of urban settlement in narrow bands along the coasts and the projected northerly path of the hurricane presents a particularly ominous picture.
“This is a large storm coming from the south,” said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the hurricane center. “That’s the worst-case scenario, because it takes in the entire Gold Coast population, and you have the greatest impact from storm surge from that direction.”
At the National Hotel on Miami Beach, a manager announced Thursday in four languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese and French — that guests needed to evacuate because of a city order. At the front desk, guests were given a sheet listing the locations of emergency shelters, none of which were likely to be as nice as the beachfront Art Deco hotel, which was restored a few years ago.
“This morning as I walked to work, I could see the things that could become projectiles,” said Natalya Garus, 35, lead concierge at the National. “Street signs. Coconuts. All the trash cans. Smoking stations. All the decorations.”
As she spoke, workers used a ladder to dismantle a decorative light fixture hanging over the hotel entrance.
Ruben Vandebosch, 28, and Wim Marten, 26, both of Belgium, and Jim Van Es, 24, of the Netherlands, said their plan is to drive to Atlanta.
“Atlanta has a nice ring to it,” Vandebosch said. “It sounds cool.”
Joseph “Tony” Vincent, 82, braked his 3-wheeled bicycle to a stop in the Naples Mobile Home Park. He has seen many storms and planned to hit the road for Irma, but he was not heading too far — he has weekend room reservations at a modest motel just outside the park, along Tamiami Trail.
“I seen Hurricane Donna blow the river completely out of its banks in Fort Myers,” he declared Friday morning. “A 2-story frame house swayed in the wind. This one is even bigger. I’m not dumb. My mama didn’t raise no fool. ”
Vincent said that even if he had the money, he wouldn’t leave his home state over a hurricane.
“Hell, you’d be safer here than taking a car on those roads. You might be killed before you get to Atlanta,” he scoffed.
If Irma fizzles, Vincent said he’ll just ride his three wheeler back to his trailer. “I’ll come on home and get drinker than hell,” he said.
The Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens — otherwise known as Zoo Miami, which sprawls across more than 700 acres and has more than 3,000 animals — closed down on Thursday but said it would not be moving its animals.
“We don’t evacuate our animals since hurricanes can change direction at the last minute and you run the risk of evacuating to a more dangerous location,” the zoo said in a statement. “Furthermore, the stress of moving the animals can be more dangerous than riding out the storm. The animals that are considered dangerous will stay in their secure night houses, which are made of poured concrete and welded metal.”
When Hurricane Andrew struck, the zoo was hit hard. Tropical birds were missing, cages torn apart and animals traumatized — through, miraculously, most of the animals were unharmed.
Among those evacuating: Forty dogs from the Miami-Dade County animal shelter. They’re being flown to New York on a private plane owned by a dog lover named Georgina Bloomberg, according to Lauree Simmons, president and founder of the Big Dog Rescue shelter in Loxahatchee, Fla.
Big Dog staff went to Houston after Hurricane Harvey, rescuing 60 dogs from the floodwaters. Those dogs are awaiting adoption at the no-kill shelter. Simmons’s 33-acre rescue center has 457 dogs and puppies living in air-conditioned bunkhouses. Staff members were working frenetically Thursday packing up the contents of offices trailers. The dog bunkhouses, meanwhile, are fitted with hurricane impact glass built to withstand 200-mile-an-hour winds, Simmons said.
“The dogs will be very comfortable,” she said. “We’ll stay here with them through the storm and just keep hoping for the best.”
Popular shopping and dining areas of Fort Lauderdale, north of Miami, were nearly completely empty, the businesses buttoned up with metal curtains and new plywood protecting their front windows. The mostly spotless sandy beaches in Fort Lauderdale were virtually empty despite the green flags attached to all its lifeguard stands indicating “low hazard” for anyone wanting to take a dip in the ocean.
Tatiana Wood, 33, a waitress at a restaurant in Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road Mall, said she has a friend of a friend who lives in Oklahoma, but she was unclear of the distance or whether she would try to get there.
“If you try to escape, you may lose money,” Wood said. “If you stay, you might lose your life.”
Berman reported from Washington. Patricia Sullivan in Naples, Fla., Kimberly Kindy in Orlando, Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach County, Dustin Waters in Charleston, S.C., and Leonard Shapiro and Perry Stein in Fort Lauderdale, Anthony Faiola in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Brian Murphy and Jenna Johnson in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated and will be updated throughout the day.