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A post office in the US Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma. Ian Brown/PA
'Be careful. Be safe'

Hurricane Irma leaves at least 15 dead as 500,000 people ordered to evacuate Florida

The death toll is expected to rise.

THE RACE TO to flee Hurricane Irma became a marathon nightmare as more than a half-million people were ordered to leave South Florida last night.

With the storm barrelling toward the tip of Florida for perhaps a catastrophic blow this weekend, normally quick trips turned into daylong journeys on crowded highways amid a constant search for gasoline 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 vacation in Washington. Using a phone app and calls to search for fuel along the way, they finally arrived at a convenience store that had gasoline nearly five hours later.

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.”

Late last night, the National Hurricane Center issued the first hurricane warning for the Keys and parts of south Florida, including some of the Miami metropolitan area of six million people. It added a storm surge warning and extended watch areas along the east and west coasts.

As people along the Atlantic Coast anxiously watched the storm’s path, Irma battered the northern Caribbean, killing at least 15 people and leaving thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees.

At least 31,000 people fled the Florida Keys, which could begin seeing wind and rain from Irma as last 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.

Scott ordered all schools and state offices to close today until the end of Monday. Florida State and the University of Florida cancelled their home football games scheduled for tomorrow.

NASA secured Kennedy Space Center 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.

Hurricane Irma Preparation - Florida Although they had plywood on the windows, an Outback Steakhouse was still open for business South Florida Sun Sentinel / TNS/ABACA South Florida Sun Sentinel / TNS/ABACA / TNS/ABACA

St. Thomas Hurricane Irma The damage caused to parts of the US Virgin Islands by Hurricane Irma. Ian Brown / PA Ian Brown / PA / PA

Most of the critical buildings at Kennedy are designed to withstand gusts of up to 135 mph (220 kph). Irma’s wind could exceed that if it reaches Cape Canaveral.
With winds that peaked at 185 mph (300 kph), Irma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Irma’s eventual path and Florida’s fate depends on when and how sharp the powerful hurricane takes a right turn, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said.

“It has become more likely that Irma will make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane,” the Hurricane Centre said in a forecast discussion yesterday afternoon.

The last Category 5 storm to hit Florida was Andrew in 1992. Its winds topped 165 mph, killing 65 people and inflicting $26 billion in damage. It was at the time the most expensive natural disaster in US history.

President Donald Trump urged people to “be careful, be safe” during Hurricane Irma. In a tweet, Trump remarked that Irma “is raging but we have great teams of talented and brave people already in place and ready to help”.
Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, the unofficial Southern White House, sits in the path of the storm.

Read: 26 million people at risk as Hurricane Irma shatters multiple records >

Read: Tsunami warning issued as massive earthquake strikes the coast of southern Mexico >

Associated Foreign Press
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