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Hurricane Irma

Traffic nightmare as 500,000 Floridians flee Irma, predicted to be worse than 1992’s Andrew

‘There is no storm to compare with this. Unless you go way back to 1926’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 10:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 3:27pm

The race to flee Hurricane Irma turned into a marathon as more than a half-million people were ordered to leave south Florida on Thursday, ahead of a storm whose impact is predicted to dwarf that of 1992’s devastating Hurricane Andrew.

With the storm barrelling toward the tip of Florida fafter leaving a trail of ruin in the Caribbean, normally quick trips turned into day-long journeys on crowded highways amid a constant search for petrol and lodging. Airline seats out of Florida were in short supply as well.

Mari and Neal Michaud loaded their two children and dog into their small sport-utility vehicle and left their home near Cocoa Beach about 10am, bound for an impromptu holiday in Washington, D.C. Using a phone app and calls to search for fuel along the way, they finally arrived at a convenience store that had petrol nearly five hours later.

Irma lays waste to the Caribbean

The 60-mile trip up Interstate 95 should have taken an hour, Mari Michaud said.

“There was no gas and it’s gridlock. People are stranded on the sides of the highway,” she said. “It’s 92 degrees out and little kids are out on the grass on the side of the road. No one can help them.”

For an entire generation in South Florida, Hurricane Andrew was the monster storm that reshaped a region. But Irma is likely to blow that out of the water.

Bigger and with a 90-degree different path of potential destruction, Irma is forecast to hit lots more people and buildings than Andrew did 25 years ago, said experts, including veterans of Andrew. At the time Andrew was the costliest hurricane in US history with damages of US$26.5 billion in 1992 dollars (about US$50 billion in current dollars), according to the National Weather Service.

“The effect of Irma on the state of Florida is going to be much greater than Andrew’s effect,” said Weather Channel senior hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross, who was a local television meteorologist hailed as a hero during Andrew. “We’re dealing with an entirely different level of phenomenon. There is no storm to compare with this. Unless you go way back to 1926.”

Kate Hale, Miami-Dade’s emergency management chief – who grabbed national attention during Andrew by beseeching “where the hell is the cavalry on this one?” – said by nearly every measure Irma looks far worse.

“Nobody can make this up. This storm. This track at this point,” Hale told The Associated Press on Thursday. Between Hurricane Harvey’s record weeklong flooding, devastating Western wildfires and Irma, which was nearing record-levels for the longest time at Category 5 strength, she called the effects on the national economy “potentially staggering.”

At least 31,000 people fled the Florida Keys, which could begin seeing wind and rain from Irma as early as Friday night, Governor Rick Scott said. He noted the size of the powerful Category 5 storm, and told residents not to become complacent.

“It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” Scott said.

Nasa secured Kennedy Space Centre and SpaceX launched an unmanned rocket for an experimental flight. Kennedy closed its doors to all non-essential staff and a crew of about 120 people will ride out the storm on site.

Most of the critical buildings at Kennedy are designed to withstand gusts of up to 220km/h. Irma’s wind could exceed that if it reaches Cape Canaveral.

With sustained winds that peaked at 300km/h, Irma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal ordered evacuations for all areas east of Interstate 95, including the city of Savannah, and authorised about 5,000 National Guard members to help with response and recovery.

Noel Marsden said he, his girlfriend, her son and their dog left Pembroke Pines north of Miami with plans to ride out Irma in Savannah, only to find the city was also shutting down because of Irma. Marsden isn’t sure where they’ll all end up.

“I’ve got a buddy in Atlanta and a buddy in Charlotte. We’ll wind up one of those two places because there are not hotels, I can tell you that,” he said.