Irma takes dead aim at Florida; 1.4M people ordered to flee

Luis Garcia, right, packs a car that he and five other members of his extended family will use to evacuate north from their home in Miami Beach, Fla, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts and Floridians emptied stores of plywood and bottled water after Hurricane Irma left at least 20 people dead and thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands and spun toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

MIAMI (AP) — Irma weakened slightly Friday but remained a dangerous and deadly hurricane taking direct aim at Florida, threatening to march along the peninsula’s spine and deliver a blow the state hasn’t seen in more than a decade.

Irma was a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (240 kph) and is forecast to remain at that strength when it comes ashore someplace south of Miami on Sunday. The storm killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean and left thousands homeless as it devastated small islands in its path.

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged people in coastal and low-lying areas to heed evacuation orders. Across Florida and Georgia, about 1.4 million people were ordered to leave their homes, clogging interstates as far away as Atlanta.

Gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will. Interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars and tractor-trailers drove on the south lanes.

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Manny Zuniga left his home in Miami at midnight Thursday, planning to drive through the night to avoid the traffic gridlock that he’d seen on television. It still took him 12 hours to get 230 miles (370 kilometers) to Orlando — a trip that normally takes four hours. Zuniga is headed for a relative’s house in Arkansas with his wife, two children, two dogs and a ferret.

preview v0162 Irma takes dead aim at Florida; 1.4M people ordered to flee
In this geocolor image GOES-16 satellite image taken Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, at 11:45 UTC, sunlight, from the right, illuminates Hurricane Irma as the storm approaches Cuba and Florida. Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts and Floridians emptied stores of plywood and bottled water after Hurricane Irma left at least 20 people dead and thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands and spun toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend. (NOAA via AP)

“We’re getting out of this state,” he said, filling up the gas tank of his tightly-packed SUV in Orlando. “Irma is going to take all of Florida.”

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The governor said people fleeing could drive slowly in the shoulder lane on highways. He hasn’t reversed the southbound lanes because he said they were needed to deliver gas and supplies.

Several small communities around Lake Okeechobee in the south-central part of Florida were added to the evacuation list because the lake may overflow, the governor said — but he added that engineers expect the protective dike around the lake to hold up.

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Officials across Florida, meanwhile, opened shelters for people who chose not to leave town. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he planned for enough space to hold 100,000 people before the storm arrives, although most shelters were only beginning to fill on Friday.

preview v00641 Irma takes dead aim at Florida; 1.4M people ordered to flee
FILE- This Sept. 5, 2017 file photo shows residents in a long line waiting to purchase water at BJ Wholesale in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Miami. With images of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath in Texas still fresh and 25-year-old memories of Hurricane Andrew’s destruction, warnings that Hurricane Irma might be the long-dreaded “big one” has brought many Floridians close to panic. Lines for gas, food and supplies stretched outside businesses as the South Florida region of more than 6 million people rushed to prepare for Irma, which forecasters say could strike over the weekend as a Category 4 or 5 storm. (Roberto Koltun/Miami Herald via AP, File)

“You don’t have to go a long way. You can go to a shelter in your county,” Scott said of the evacuations. “This storm is powerful and deadly. We are running out of time.”

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The latest forecast shifted the most powerful part of the storm to the west of the Miami metropolitan area that is home to some 6 million people, but hurricane-force winds are still likely there.

“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 hurricane center said in its forecast.

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The last major hurricane — a storm with winds of at least 111 mph (180 kph) — to hit Florida was Wilma in 2005. Its eye cut through the state’s southern third as it packed winds of 120 mph (193 kph). Five people died. Andrew slammed into Florida as a Category 5 storm in 1992 and at the time was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history with damages of $26.5 billion.

preview v00651 Irma takes dead aim at Florida; 1.4M people ordered to flee
This photo provided by Shawn Woodward shows the scene on the tarmac at the Miami Airport, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Police said they were investigating an officer-involved shooting Thursday night at the Miami airport that shut down a terminal as people looked to leave Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma. Police said in a statement that they were responding, but no other details were immediately available. (Shawn Woodward via AP)

For Irma, forecasters predicted a storm surge of 6 to 12 feet above ground level along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Keys. As much as a foot of rain could fall across the state, with isolated spots receiving 20 inches.

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The National Hurricane Center issued hurricane warnings for the Keys and parts of South Florida and Lake Okeechobee. It added a storm surge warning and extended watch areas wrapping around much of the peninsula.

With winds that peaked at 185 mph (300 kph), Irma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

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Irma’s weakening comes at a cost. When that happened, its hurricane-force wind field expanded greatly, to about 110 miles (180 kilometers) wide, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private service Weather Underground.

“It’s a big storm,” Masters said. “It’s not as big as Katrina, but it is definitely a large hurricane now.”

Even as forecasts showed the storm’s center could enter Georgia far inland after churning up the Florida peninsula, Gov. Nathan Deal urged nearly 540,000 coastal residents to evacuate, noting Irma’s path remains unpredictable. Forecasts show it could enter the state Monday anywhere from the Atlantic coast to the Alabama state line.

___

Galofaro reported from Orlando. Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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