The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded may bring “significant storm surge” as it nears Florida, the state’s governor warned Wednesday, saying Hurricane Irma is stronger than the last Category 5 storm to hit the state — as the mayor of Broward County announced mandatory evacuations for coastal areas.
Irma is packing 185-mph winds and is located about 20 miles east of St. Thomas and 90 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico about 2 p.m. ET Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said. It was heading west-northwest at 16 mph, passing over the northernmost Virgin Islands.
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“This storm is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a press briefing in Monroe County, where a mandatory evacuation is in effect for all visitors to the Florida Keys. A mandatory evacuation for residents begins at 7 p.m., Wednesday.
Scott activated an additional 900 members of the Florida National Guard to support any preparations for potential impacts from Irma. By Friday morning, Scott said 6,000 National Guard members will be reporting for duty across the state.
Irma is forecast to begin impacting the Florida Keys as a devastating hurricane by Saturday, according to Scott, who warned the storm has the potential to “devastate our state.”
“Do not focus on the exact path of this storm,” Scott said. “A storm of this size could have effects statewide and everyone must be prepared.”
Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said Wednesday mandatory evacuations have been issued starting at noon Thursday for all residents east of U.S. Route 1, known as Federal Highway, including all barrier islands.
Sharief said 14 emergency shelters will open Thursday at noon, which she are “a refuge of last resort.” The county does have pet-friendly shelters, with a full list available on the county’s website.
Further south, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he has not issued mandatory evacuation because Irma has slowed, and county officials have more time to assess conditions before making a decision.
Gimenez said about 2,200 special needs residents have been evacuated, and the evacuations will continue until they’re complete.
In addition, four shelters will be activated today with a capacity of 8,000 people, Gimenez said, in case evacuation orders are issued for zones A and B along the coast.
The governor warned Irma could bring “way more storm surge” than Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to hit the U.S., which devastated South Florida in 1992.
Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma’s potential path, with mandatory evacuations going into effect Wednesday morning.
A Navy spokesman told Fox News 5,000 non-essential personnel and family members based at Naval Air Station Key West are evacuating, adding that 50 to 60 “mission essential personnel” will stay to continue essential functions.
“All Florida Navy installations are working through checklists to prepare their installations for the storm,” Bill Dougherty said.
In addition to the evacuation, Navy officials told Fox News warships meant for Hurricane Harvey relief are now being staged to deal with Irma.
The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and smaller USS Oak Hill will remain off the coast of Florida to be ready to support any work related to Irma-relief instead of heading to Texas as previously scheduled.
Additional warships have left port in Florida to evade the storm, according to officials.
Elsewhere in South Florida, Miami-Dade officials said residents should indeed be getting ready, with some schools being canceled for the rest of the week, WSVN reported.
“This is a powerful storm which poses a serious threat,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
Area residents have filled stores to stock up on supplies, with some locations reporting shortages of water.
Nicole Chery, who was shopping at a Publix in Miami Shores, told WSVN she tried and failed to find water as she prepares for the approaching storm.
“They say that they can’t give me any pack,” Chery said. “They say that the truck is on the way, but they don’t have no time frame.”
The National Weather Service director said Wednesday his staff is “very worried about the impact of winds and surge on the Keys” as Irma approaches.
Director Louis Uccellini says all the hazards will be dangerous with Irma — that means the storm surge, high winds and heavy rain, and that “very strong winds can do a lot of damage” in an urban environment like South Florida.
The key for Florida and the U.S. east coast is when and where Irma makes a “right turn” and heads north. He says where that happens “depends on a low pressure system over the Great Lakes region.”
To figure all this out, the weather service is using its newest satellite and launching 49 new balloons to gather information for computer models.
Irma’s unknown track has officials north of Florida getting ready for the worst.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster hdeclared a state of emergency Wednesday, since Irma’s path could take the powerful storm through the state.
The declaration allows state officials to set up an operations center at the Emergency Management Division headquarters in West Columbia.
Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Courtesy, Fox News