Millions Told to Leave as Florida Braces for Hurricane Irma

NAPLES, Fla. — Hurricane Irma strengthened to a Category 5 storm late Friday as it made landfall in Cuba, forecasters said, on a path predicted to bring it to Florida and potentially causing catastrophic damage.

Irma, with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph, was making landfall on Cuba’s Camaguey Archipelago as of 11 p.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm was around 300 miles southeast of Miami and is forecast to be near the Florida Keys by Sunday morning. But its effects on the Keys and in southwest Florida, which could include life-threatening storm surge, could be felt before then.

“Florida, first the Florida Keys, is going to be hit by a potentially devastating hurricane, and we’re really very concerned — first for the Keys for storm surge, and then for the peninsula for storm surge along the coast,” National Hurricane Center Acting Director Edward Rappaport said on MSNBC Friday.

He said “very strong winds and flooding rains” were forecast to come ashore later Saturday and into Sunday.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday warned people to leave the southern part of the state, and said that those not on the road by midnight should seek a nearby shelter. He said the storm is projected to be “catastrophic.”

About 5.6 million people in Florida — more than one quarter of the state’s population — were ordered to evacuate and another 540,000 were told to leave the Georgia coast.

The National Weather Service in Key West warned on Twitter Friday that nowhere in the Keys will be safe. “This is as real as it gets,” the weather service said.

President Donald Trump in a video message Friday warned “this is a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential.” He urged everyone in its path to heed evacuation orders.

Florida Power & Light, the nation’s third-largest electric utility, warned it was expecting “unprecedented” power outages. FPL CEO Eric Silagy said power outages could affect about 9 million people.

Related: Up to 9 Million Floridians Could Be Without Power After Irma, Some for Weeks

The hurricane killed at least 23 people as it raked through the Caribbean earlier this week. The storm was a Category 5 with 160 mph winds, faster than earlier Friday when it was a Category 4.

Image: Hurricane Irma 2017 Image: Hurricane Irma 2017

Broward county residents arrive at a hurricane shelter during an emergency evacuation in preparation on Sept. 8, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida before Hurricane Irma hits the area. Orit Ben-Ezzer / Zuma Press

On Cuba, thousands of tourists were evacuated from low-lying keys off the coast dotted with all-inclusive resorts ahead of the storm’s approach. All residents of the area were under mandatory evacuation orders from the Cuban government, which was moving tens of thousands of people from vulnerable coastline.

The hurricane ravaged small islands in the northeast Caribbean, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, ripping down trees and flattening homes and hospitals.

The typically bustling downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Naples were near empty Friday. Residents had either evacuated or were making last-minute preparations, resigned to sitting through the Category 5 Hurricane in their homes and hoping for the best.

Tony Marcellus struggled to figure out how to get his elderly mother and grandfather from their home near the ocean in West Palm Beach to his place in Atlanta, 600 miles away. Flights and rental cars were sold out, so he hired an Uber driver to take them 170 miles to meet him in Orlando.

Manny Zuniga left his home in Miami at midnight Thursday and it still took him and his family 12 hours to get 230 miles to Orlando — a trip that normally takes four hours.

“We’re getting out of this state,” he said, filling up the gas tank of his tightly-packed SUV in Orlando. His final destination is a relative in Arkansas.

“Irma is going to take all of Florida,” he added.

At least 900 flights were canceled in Florida as of Friday afternoon. Miami International Airport saw 75 percent of its schedule scrubbed. It will remain open but no flights are expected to arrive or depart on Saturday or Sunday.

Gas supplies were put under strain. According to GasBuddy, 38 percent of gas stations in Miami/Fort Lauderdale are out of fuel and 55 percent of Gainesville stations were depleted. In response to the shortages, Scott directed Florida Highway Patrol to escort resupply trucks to gas stations.

There are currently 1,700 members of Florida Highway Patrol working the roadways on 12-hour shifts, Scott said.

The U.S. Navy on Friday ordered an aircraft carrier and two other ships to head to get underway to be in position to provide humanitarian and search assistance if necessary. A fourth ship conducting local operations was ordered to join the group, the Navy said.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Irma Carves Path of Destruction in Caribbean

Georgia was also preparing for the hurricane effects of Irma. Gov. Nathan Deal announced mandatory evacuations to go into effect Saturday at 8 a.m. ET for certain low-lying parts in the state’s south.

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

Image: Richard Jay, Dennis Seepersaue, Shay Rymer Image: Richard Jay, Dennis Seepersaue, Shay Rymer

Richard Jay, right, boards up his motel with help from Dennis Seepersaue, center, and Shay Rymer ahead of Hurricane Irma in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2017. David Goldman / AP

Meanwhile Hurricane Jose shadowed Irma’s movements, strengthening to a Category 4 storm on Friday with walloping winds of 150 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Jose has brought another hurricane watch to Antigua, Barbuda and Anguilla, and St. Martin only two days after the islands in the region were damaged by Irma.

Kalhan Rosenblatt reported from Naples. Erik Ortiz and Elizabeth Chuck reported from New York.