JOHN YANG: Tonight, Florida is bracing for what could be its worst hurricane ever. While Irma’s sustained winds have dropped a bit, it is still a Category 4 storm, with at least 22 dead and a trail of destruction in its wake.
P.J. Tobia begins our coverage from Cocoa Beach, Florida.
P.J. TOBIA: Snaking lines of traffic and clogged highways, Floridians escaping a storm that’s targeting the entire state.
Irma blew toward the Florida Keys today. The storm’s center is on track to turn north and make landfall on the mainland by early Sunday, then plow the length of the state and beyond. Heavy winds battered the islands of Turks and Caicos today, and along the Cuban coastline, thousands of tourists were evacuated from beach towns.
Streets were submerged in the Dominican Republic after Irma’s passage. The governor of Puerto Plata says some were caught off guard.
IVAN RIVERA, Governor, Puerto Plata (through interpreter): We need to find the people who left the shelters because they thought there was no hurricane, that nothing was going on. We can’t allow people who were ignoring what was happening to be surprised in the middle of a hurricane, so we have to go out and find them again.
P.J. TOBIA: At an airport in the Netherlands, the military loaded planes today with badly needed supplies, and the French navy sent water bottles and other relief by ship.
Badly damaged Barbuda was also greatly in need of aid. This woman searched in vain for her 2-year-old, missing since the storm struck.
STEVET JEREMIAH, Babuda Resident (through interpreter): I can’t find my son and my other friend. I can’t deal with this no more. We didn’t expect anything like this. In all my life, I have never seen a concrete house crumble under a hurricane.
P.J. TOBIA: But the islands will barely have a chance to begin the long slog of recovery before another major storm rolls in. Hurricane Jose powered up to Category 4 today, with sustained winds near 150 miles an hour. It could blast St. Martin, Antigua and Barbuda on Saturday, before it heads west into the Atlantic.
With an eye on the damage Irma has already done, and plenty of warning, Florida has been making preparations for days. Many areas across South and Central Florida are already under mandatory evacuation orders. Here in Brevard County, that means homes and businesses boarded up early against the elements.
But manufactured homes like the ones behind me are often most susceptible to hurricane-strength winds and rain. In the coastal town of Cocoa Beach, many secured their homes before heading inland.
RORY O’NEILL, Florida Evacuee: I think everyone is just more alert and stocking up more. Then we’re really going to prepare and go.
P.J. TOBIA: Despite the traffic backups and gas shortages, Governor Rick Scott urged people to leave while they still can.
GOV. RICK SCOTT, R-Fla.: Evacuations are not convenient, but they are meant to absolutely keep you safe. I’m glad so many are driving to a safe place.
P.J. TOBIA: Scott also pledged police escorts for gas station workers who stayed on the job to get fuel to as many people as possible.
Meanwhile, FEMA says up to 100,000 people might need shelter in Florida once the storm hits. This center in Orlando cares for homeless people with special medical needs. Its manager says all of the challenges posed by a monster hurricane are that much harder for those without homes or good health.
DAWN ZINGER, Pathways to Care: Sometimes they can’t handle the crowd, or they’re on medications and they’re on insulin, and so keeping that cold, all of these things start to play into it.
P.J. TOBIA: And so they choose to ride the storm out on the street?
DAWN ZINGER: Yes, they sure will. I don’t think so many are this time. There is truly a sense that this is bigger than what we have seen in the past.
P.J. TOBIA: This man says some of his homeless friends and family will be weathering the storm in the open, and if it weren’t for the facility, he might be doing the same.
MAN: My brother right now is out there. He’s taking care of my tent, and making sure it’s all wrapped up in canvases and tied everything down and make sure everything’s secure.
P.J. TOBIA: In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal is still urging 540,000 people living along the coast to evacuate, but the storm’s shift westward also prompted him to expand the state of emergency to 94 counties.
As of 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, most of the barrier islands in this area, including right here where I’m standing on Cocoa Beach, have a 24-hour mandatory evacuation order. That means residents have 24 hours to pack up their gear, board up their homes and businesses, and hit the road.
After that time period, emergency officials told us today they’re not sure they are going to be able to respond to emergency calls or life-threatening situations — John.
JOHN YANG: P.J., what’s the situation in terms of preparations down there?
P.J. TOBIA: Yes, prepare, prepare, prepare is the word of the day down here and really the last couple of days.
Folks have been really boarding up their houses, buying supplies. There’s not a lot of water left on store shelves. There’s not a lot of gas left at what gas stations are still open, and residents tell us that’s because of the memory of Hurricane Matthew, which was a storm that hit here last year and did a lot of damage in the area, never actually made landfall.
In fact, it just stayed right off there, off the coast for a couple of days. And so they’re worried this storm that will be making landfall and maybe coming through this area could be much worse. And, of course, there’s the memory of Hurricane Harvey that just damaged Houston. No one wants to see that kind of destruction here.
JOHN YANG: And, P.J., you mentioned an evacuation order for where you are. In Florida, and because of the storm path, there’s only one way to go. That’s north. How are the evacuations going?
P.J. TOBIA: Well, what officials have tried to do is have a phased zone evacuation system. This is zone one. It’s right on the water.
That means they’re the first to evacuate. Later, it will fold into zone two further inland and possibly zone three if it comes to that. Still, as we have all seen, lots of traffic on the roads, lots of jammed highways heading north out of the Sunshine State.
JOHN YANG: P.J. Tobia on what is now a Cocoa Beach in Florida, P.J., stay safe over the weekend.
P.J. TOBIA: Thanks so much, John.
JOHN YANG: While the exact path of Irma remains uncertain, one thing is clear. Florida is going to get hit hard.
Miami is right in the cross hairs. It’s also home to the National Hurricane Center.
We turn again to its acting director, Ed Rappaport.
Ed, thanks for joining us again.
What is the latest on the track of Irma?
ED RAPPAPORT, Acting Director, National Hurricane Center: We can see Irma off to my shoulder here. And it’s passing now to the north of the eastern part of Cuba.
And as we said for the past few days, we think that track along the coast there will continue, but then a turn towards the north, and where that turn occurs is going to be critical in terms of the impacts that we will see in South Florida.
And one of those impacts that we’re most concerned about is storm surge. I have got the video of that behind me, shows just what storm surge is and what it can do. At this point, what we’re concerned most about is surge along the southeast coast, Florida Keys and the southwest coast in this area that’s colored with six to 12 feet of storm surge possible in the southwestern part of Florida and five to 10 feet along the coast in southeastern part of Florida and the Keys.
JOHN YANG: And given the physical size of this storm and the physical narrowness of Florida, does any little deviation or a possible deviation in the track make much a difference in that storm surge and in what Florida is going to get hit with?
ED RAPPAPORT: It doesn’t change the amount of storm surge very much, but it does change what people experience in terms of the wind.
And at this point, we have it forecast for the center, which is these dots here, coming up on the southwest part of the peninsula. Any shift one way or the other makes a big difference in terms of the winds. At this point, the shifts that we have had today have been — made it worse for the Florida Keys in terms of the expectations and have increased the risk for the southwestern part of the Florida Peninsula.
JOHN YANG: So, it’s getting worse. What you have seen, the changes so far have made things worse?
ED RAPPAPORT: In terms of the change of the track today, it is worse for the Florida Keys.
It’s also worse for Southwest Florida, because the track is closer to them. There is some potential that the worst of the weather will not hit Southeast Florida, but we’re still expecting hurricane conditions there overnight Saturday and into Sunday.
JOHN YANG: And once it gets over land and starts moving up the Florida Peninsula, are winds going to diminish much as the storm goes over land?
ED RAPPAPORT: Yes.
Typically, the winds do diminish very gradually. But, in this case, because hurricane-force winds extend so far that, even when they drop down a little bit, we are still going to see those winds covering almost all of the Florida Peninsula. At least the southern two-thirds will get potentially hurricane-force winds.
JOHN YANG: Ed Rappaport at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, thanks so much.
ED RAPPAPORT: Thank you.
JOHN YANG: Staying in Miami, shelters are rapidly filling to capacity, as officials stressed the importance of making plans ahead of Irma’s arrival.
A short time ago, I spoke by phone with Major Hector Llevat of the Miami-Dade Police Department.
Major Hector Llevat of the Miami-Dade Police Department, thanks for joining us.
I want to begin by asking you about the evacuations. I know that there are about 680,000 people in Miami-Dade under evacuation order right now. How is that process going?
MAJ. HECTOR LLEVAT, Miami-Dade Police Department: Well, the good thing is that, early on this week, the county government here was urging those that had plans to relocate as part of their hurricane plan to go ahead and initiate those plans ahead of time, and not wait for the evacuation order.
Obviously, you know, the layout of Florida is a long distance before you can get upstate and out of the state, if that’s your desire. So we put those messages out early, and people have been slowly trickling out. Obviously, it’s difficult to measure numbers.
But the information that we have been getting from people that we know and what we see here on local TV is that a lot of people have decided to go ahead and either relocate or seek shelter, but, so far, it’s been orderly. We have been working with the Florida Highway Patrol and other agencies to help the traffic flow.
The governor has to suspended tolls and things like that to try to make the process a little smoother.
JOHN YANG: Major, we have landfall expected, I understand, Sunday morning. We’re a little bit out from that. What’s your biggest concern right now?
MAJ. HECTOR LLEVAT: Well, the biggest concern right now, before the storm, is really to urge everybody to prepare, to get those preparations in place.
Obviously, the window is closing quickly. Make those final arrangements. Make sure you decide what it is you’re going to do, so that when it’s time to bunker down and shelter in place, that everybody’s in a safe location. And that’s really the thing that we’re focusing on now.
The other side of that as an agency is make sure our employees are prepared and their families are prepared so that they can turn and serve the community in the time of need, making sure our equipment is ready. We’re already mobilized our department, so we’re working two shifts now, the half of the department in the day shift and the other half on the evening shift, 12-hour shifts.
Obviously, days off have been canceled until further notice, and we are ready to go.
JOHN YANG: Do you get any sense in any difference in the public response? We have always heard of people talking about riding them out. Are there fewer people talking about it this time?
MAJ. HECTOR LLEVAT: A lot of people are choosing to not be here when it comes.
I think part of it is what we saw in Texas recently, which is obviously a tragedy and it’s on everybody’s mind. And on top of that, recently, we had the 25-year anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which is something that South Floridians remember quite well, and it was a devastating storm.
And this storm, by all accounts, is much stronger.
JOHN YANG: And, finally, for those people in Miami-Dade who may be listening to us right now, what’s your message?
MAJ. HECTOR LLEVAT: Our message right now is to follow the instructions that you’re getting from government officials, to visit the official Web site, which is Miami-Dade.gov/emergency, where we have updated information on shelters and many of the topics that people are searching for answers for, and to follow us on social media @MiamiDadePD, across the major platforms, where we will be sharing up-to-date information as much as we can throughout the event.
JOHN YANG: Major Hector Llevat of the Miami-Dade police, thank you very much for your time.
MAJ. HECTOR LLEVAT: Thank you very much.