As Hurricane Irma moves toward Florida, officials there warn millions of people that time is running out to evacuate after the storm killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean and caused catastrophic destruction.
Florida has asked 5.6 million people — more than one-quarter of the state’s population — to evacuate ahead of the hurricane’s expected landfall Sunday.
Florida Governor Rick Scott characterized Irma as “a catastrophic storm that this state has never seen before,” noting that the storm is wider than the state of Florida.
Scott warned, “We are running out of time. The storm is almost here.”
Forecasts readjusted the storm’s potential track Friday toward the west coast of Florida, which would mean that Miami’s metropolitan area of 6 million people would be spared a direct hit from the storm.
Alp Inal, a businessman in Miami, described the city to VOA’s Turkish Service as a ghost town as most people heeded warnings to evacuate the area.
“South Beach, midtown all these areas are empty. People are fleeing the city by car or by plane if they can find tickets to anywhere. You cannot find gasoline at gas stations and more than half of the gas stations in Miami are not operational,” Inal said.
He said his family is flying to Boston because it is the only place they could get plane tickets to.
“We searched for tickets to New York, Washington, Atlanta and Nashville, but we couldn’t find any,” he said.
Irma regained its Category 5 status late Friday after earlier being downgraded to a still powerful Category 4. Forecasters say the storm, regarded as the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic, could maintain its current strength as it approaches the continental United Sates.
The storm is forecast to slam into the Florida Keys and the southern Florida peninsula Sunday morning.
WATCH: Federal Disaster Officials Respond to Catastrophic Hurricane Season
U.S. President Donald Trump and his Cabinet are to meet Saturday to discuss the hurricane.
“It’s a really bad one, but we’re prepared at the highest level. Hopefully, everything will be well,” Trump, standing on the White House South Lawn, told reporters Friday just before boarding Marine One for the helicopter ride to the Camp David presidential retreat where the Cabinet meeting will occur.
Kathleen Fox, acting deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told VOA, “We’ve got tens of thousands of liters of water, we’ve got food, we’ve got cots, we’ve got medical supplies, prepositioned toddler kits, which includes diapers, formula, those kinds of things.”
White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said, “This storm has taken lives already. Take care of yourself first so you can take care of others.”
Bossert, speaking during a White House briefing, was asked what his biggest concern is. He replied that “we’re worried about the fuel shortages” amid Florida’s mass evacuation, noting five or six oil refineries in Texas are still out of operation from recent Hurricane Harvey.
Destruction in the Caribbean
The storm has already ripped through 160-square-kilometer Barbuda, prompting Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda to say the island was now “rubble.”
The prime minister estimates about 95 percent of all the buildings on Barbuda were either destroyed or damaged.
The island nation is now bracing for impact from Category 4 Hurricane Jose.
On the island of St. Martin, shared by France and the Netherlands, there are “scenes of pillaging” as people loot stores and take to the streets in search of food and water, according to Annick Girardin, France’s minister for overseas territories.
It could be up to six months before all power is restored on cash-strapped Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where Irma knocked out power to more than one million people.
Irma also lashed Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, with fierce winds and heavy rain, but spared those two countries a direct hit.
The U.S. Defense Department has deployed three Navy ships, about two dozen aircraft and hundreds of Marines to help with recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
After taking an aerial tour Friday of the destruction on St. John and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp simply said, “It’s just bad.”
Mapp said St. John seemed to have been “whacked harder” by the storm’s strong winds, causing “structural collapses.”
Four deaths were reported on the U.S. Virgin Islands, while there was widespread destruction on St. Thomas, including of its hospital, port and sewage treatment plant. | via VOANews