Florida’s gasoline supply slowed to a trickle — as did traffic on Sunshine State highways — as panicked residents scrambled Thursday from the path of Hurricane Irma, the record-breaking storm set to unleash devastation on Miami as early as Sunday morning.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference the state’s gas situation is a “top priority.”
“I have been very clear to the retailers,” Scott said. “We have to get the fuel as fast as we can out so people can evacuate.”
The governor is asking the federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency and White House, to waive restrictions to get as much fuel to Florida as possible before Irma nears.
“We know fuel is very important, and we are devoting every state resource to this,” Scott said. “I know this has to be very frustrating, and we won’t stop working on this.”
Once fuel arrives in Florida, Scott said another priority is to make sure it gets to gas stations. The Florida Highway Patrol was out Thursday escorting gasoline trucks to dry fuel pumps across the state.
Scott also recommended people use the GasBuddy app to find what stations still have gas, and that people should “only take the fuel you need.”
Hurricane Irma is located about 120 miles southeast of Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos, the National Hurricane Center said in its 2 p.m. ET advisory. The storm is headed west-northwest at 16 mph with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, according to the NHC.
Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties are all now under a hurricane watch, which is issued 48 hours in advance by the National Hurricane Center. The watch means hurricane conditions will be possible within the next two days in the specified area, and residents should prepare accordingly.
The National Hurricane Center said hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles from Irma’s center and tropical storm-force winds extended 175 miles. Irma has killed at least 9 people as it has tore through the Caribbean.
Even as current models show the storm going along Florida’s East Coast, Scott said the state’s West Coast will still have hurricane conditions.
“Look at the size of this storm,” Scott said. “It’s huge.”
“Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” he said.
“The computer models don’t know quite yet what to do,” Fox News Senior Meteorologist Janice Dean said Thursday. “Does a trough pick up the storm? What is the timing on the trough?”
Dean said there is “very good agreement” by Saturday and Sunday, and coming “too close to comfort” for the Florida Keys.
Irma will also have impacts beyond South Florida, according to Dean, as the storm may track north along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts.
“Do not let your guard down if you live across the Southeast coast,” she said.
Residents leaving their homes ahead of Irma
As Irma continues to barrel toward South Florida, residents in parts of the Miami metro area are under mandatory orders to leave their homes.
Mayors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties issued mandatory evacuation orders for barrier islands and low-lying mainland areas in the metro area of 6 million.
Officials in Miami-Dade County opened four additional shelters, including pet-friendly ones, for residents seeking safety from Irma.
An estimated 31,000 people left the Florida Keys as of 6 p.m. Wednesday, according to Scott, after all visitors were ordered to clear out, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic on the single highway that links the chain of low-lying islands to the mainland.
“It’s just scary, you know? We want to get to higher ground. Never had a Cat 5, never experienced it,” Michelle Reynolds told the Associated Press as she was leaving the Keys, where people filled gas cans and workers covered fuel pumps with “out of service” sleeves.
The Florida Highway Patrol said in a news release troopers are monitoring the high volume of traffic heading north on Florida’s Turnpike as people evacuate South Florida.
Extra troopers, road rangers and wreckers will be on the roadways to help drivers whose vehicles have become disabled, according to the FHP.
The agency said disabled vehicles left on the shoulders of the highways would be towed starting Thursday morning to make it easier for emergency workers who are trying to reach crash victims.
Turnpike officials are also using cameras along the road to monitor conditions.
“Should we leave? A lot of people that I wouldn’t expect to leave are leaving. So, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow!'” Martie McClain, 66, who lives in the South Florida town of Plantation, told the AP. Still, she was undecided about going and worried about getting stuck in traffic and running out of gas.
Further up Florida’s coast, officials in Flagler County issued voluntary evacuations for coastal areas, while Brevard County in the Space Coast area issued a mandatory evacuation order for the barrier islands, Merritt Island and some mainland low-lying areas along the Indian River Lagoon
“Those who live in mobile or manufactured homes or in other flood-prone areas are also vulnerable and should evacuate whether on the mainland or the barrier islands,” county spokesman Don Walker said.
In the Jacksonville, the city’s mayor also issued a voluntary evacuation order issued for zones A & B, and urged those who can to leave early to avoid potential traffic issues.
Shifting forecasts have also raised the threat to the Southeast from Irma, prompting emergency declarations in the Carolinas and coastal Georgia, including areas that haven’t suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered a mandatory evacuation starting on Saturday from the state’s Atlantic coast ahead of Hurricane Irma, including the city of Savannah.
Deal issued the evacuation Thursday for all areas east of Interstate 95, all of Chatham County and some areas west of the interstate, and expanded a state of emergency to 30 counties.
Deal’s order authorizes about 5,000 Georgia National Guard members to be on active duty to help people respond and recover. Georgia hasn’t been hit by a hurricane with winds Category 3 or higher since 1898.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, also declared a state of emergency. A major strike there would be the first in nearly 28 years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.