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MIAMI — Florida residents picked store shelves clean and long lines formed at gas pumps Wednesday as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 monster with potentially catastrophic winds of 185 mph, steamed toward the Sunshine State and a possible direct hit on the Miami metropolitan area of nearly 6 million people.

The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic destroyed homes and flooded streets as it roared through a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean some 1,000 miles from Florida. Forecasters said Irma could strike the Miami area by early Sunday, then rake the entire length of the state's east coast and push into Georgia and the Carolinas.

"This thing is a buzz saw," warned Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach. "I don't see any way out of it."

 

Locally: Richard Grumm, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in State College, said as of early Wednesday evening, models showed a swing up north once Irma reaches Florida, but added it's unlikely the storm would cause much effect in Pennsylvania.

"Our models are struggling to produce more than a few tenths of an inch," Grumm said.

“We don’t see anything … like with (Tropical Storm) Lee," said National Weather Service meteorologist Charles Ross. “That obviously sat over us for a couple of days and flooded a lot of streets.”

Lee caused about $2.9 million in damage to roads, bridges and public buildings in York County in 2011, according to the York County Office of Emergency Management.

York County also felt the effects of Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

County spokesman Mark Walters said local officials are monitoring reports from the state Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and will likely know more by Friday about what to expect.

In the case of an emergency, the county could activate use of the Emergency Operations Center, which is located at the 911 Center, Walters said.

Depending on the severity of the emergency, activation of the center is based on four levels, staring at Level 4 (day-to-day operations) and rising to Level 1 (full staffing across multiple agencies).

 

Florida: An estimated 25,000 people or more left the Florida Keys after all visitors were ordered to clear out, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic on the single highway that links the chain of low-lying islands to the mainland.

But because of the uncertainty in any forecast this far out, state and local authorities in Miami and Fort Lauderdale held off for the time being on ordering any widespread evacuations there.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott waived tolls on all Florida highways and told people if they were thinking about leaving to "get out now." But in the same breath, he acknowledged that "it's hard to tell people where to go until we know exactly where it will go."

Amid the dire forecasts and the devastating damage done by Hurricane Harvey less than two weeks ago in Houston, some people who usually ride out storms in Florida seemed unwilling to risk it this time.

"Should we leave? A lot of people that I wouldn't expect to leave are leaving. So, it's like, 'Oh, wow!'" said Martie McClain, 66, who lives in the South Florida town of Plantation. Still, she was undecided about going and worried about getting stuck in traffic and running out of gas.

 

Local reaction: The Rev. Jonathan Sawicki of St. Mary’s Church in York City said he will join his congregants in prayer as many attendants at the church's Spanish Mass are of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent.

Sawicki recalled seeing one of his former parishioners on social media concerned over Irma’s path to their home in Puerto Rico.

“She wrote, ‘Oh my God, why did we move now?’" he said.

St. Mary's Deacon Catalino Gonzalez said he was monitoring the path of Irma but said he hasn’t received calls from friends and family in his native Puerto Rico.

“I’m not worried right now,” he said. “Not yet.”

Construction: The many construction cranes at sites around South Florida could pose a serious threat if they are toppled.

In Miami, the deputy director of the Building Department, Maurice Pons, said that there about two dozen such cranes in the city alone and that they were built to withstand winds up to 145 mph, but not a Category 5 hurricane.

He said he could "not advise staying in a building next to a construction crane during a major hurricane like Irma."

As people rushed to buy up water and other supplies, board up their homes with plywood and fill up their cars, Scott declared a state of emergency and asked the governors of Alabama and Georgia to waive trucking regulations so gasoline tankers can get fuel into Florida quickly to ease shortages.

It has been almost 25 years since Florida took a hit from a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Andrew struck just south of Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), killing 65 people and inflicting $26 billion in damage. It was at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

"We'll see what happens," President Donald Trump said in Washington. "It looks like it could be something that could be not good, believe me, not good."

Trump's exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach — the unofficial Southern White House — sits in the path of the storm.

Strong storm: This is only the second time on Earth since satellites started tracking storms about 40 years ago that one maintained 185 mph winds for more than 24 hours, Colorado State's Klotzbach said.

University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said Irma could easily prove the costliest storm in U.S. history.

Jeff Masters, director of the Weather Underground forecasting service, warned that high winds and large storm surges will damage expensive properties from Miami to Charleston, South Carolina.

"If it goes right up the Gold Coast like the current models are saying, then the Gold Coast is going to become the Mud Coast," Masters said. "That includes Mar-a-Lago."

While Florida building codes were tightened and enforced more stringently after Andrew, the population since then has grown, coastal development has continued, and climate change has become more pronounced.

Under 2001 rules, housing in most parts of Florida must be built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, meaning winds of up to 129 mph. Miami-Dade and Broward counties have more stringent building codes requiring some structures to withstand Category 4 winds of 146 mph and 140 mph respectively.

As Irma drew closer, Georgia and South Carolina declared a state of emergency. North Carolina declared a state of emergency taking effect Thursday morning.
"It's just scary, you know? We want to get to higher ground. Never had a Cat 5, never experienced it," said Michelle Reynolds, who was leaving the Keys as people filled gas cans and workers covered fuel pumps with "out of service" sleeves.
 

Fineout reported from Tallahassee. Dispatch reporter Junior Gonzalez and Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Josh Replogle in Key Largo, Florida, also contributed to this report.

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