Over 6 mn flee as Irma threatens to engulf Florida
In by far the biggest evacuation ordered in recent US history, more than 6.3 million people have been asked to move out as Hurricane Irma barrelled towards Florida with enormous power after wreaking havoc in a host of Caribbean islands and Cuba.
Although Irma weakened slightly to a Category 4 stormwith a wind speed of 130 miles per hour by Saturday morning, the authorities have warned that it could regain strength later in the day before making landfall in South Florida on Sunday morning.
As the eye of the storm moved along Cuba and inched closer to South Florida, the National Hurricane Center extended its warning for most parts of the State, bringing in its wake massive storm surges, torrential rains and heavy flooding.
Governors of four adjoining States — Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina — have also declared emergencies.
Calling Irma “a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential”, President Donald Trump put out a videotaped statement, asking Floridians to heed recommendations from government officials and law enforcement.
In Palm Beach, where Trump’s own Mar-a-Lago waterfront estate is located, evacuation was on.
“It’s not a question of whether Florida is going to be impacted – it’s a question of how bad Florida is going
to be impacted,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, who has been waging a relentless evacuation campaign for the past several days, warned the people, “We are running out of time. If you are in an evacuation zone, you need to go now. This is a catastrophic storm like our state has never seen.”
“Look at the size of this storm. It is wider than our entire state. Every Floridian should take this serious and protect your family,” Scott said as the highways remained chock-a-bloc for miles and miles with vehicles crawling northwards to safety.
At the same time, despite the dire predictions, some reports suggested that a substantial number of people were opting to ride out the storm by staying put in their homes, prompting Scott to urge them to at least move to the mass shelters created by the authorities within the State. The evacuation orders cover a fourth of Florida’s population.
About 7,000 members of the National Guard have been deployed.
Ahead of striking Cuba on Saturday, Irma had already killed at least 24 people in a host of Caribbean island nations and left a vast trail of destruction, notably in Barbuda, where 95 per cent of the buildings were destroyed or severely damaged.
The National Hurricane Center’s tracking model indicated that the eye of the storm could cross Florida Keys early Sunday morning and strike the southwest coast of the State by afternoon.
Despite the downgrading to Category 4 as of Saturday, Irma is “still expected to remain a powerful hurricane as it approaches Florida”, the
centre said. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has signed a $15 billion hurricane relief package passed by Congress, one that also raises the debt ceiling and avoids a looming shutdown by funding Government into early December.
Hours earlier the House of Representatives voted 316 to 90 to approve the package, which was the result of an agreement struck between Trump and congressional Democrats in a hurried effort to free up emergency funding after Hurricane Harvey swamped Texas, and as a second monster storm bears down on Florida.
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