Florida residents heed Irma warnings after Harvey's destruction

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) - Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in Texas may not have altered Florida’s well-tested storm plans, but it appears to have infused residents with a new sense of urgency as they prepare for approaching Hurricane Irma.

Residents wait in line to purchase propane gas at Lee's Barbecue Center in Boca Raton, Florida, as they continue to prepare for Hurricane Irma's expected arrival. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Officials said Harvey’s devastating flooding, coupled with the sheer power of Irma, ranked as the strongest Atlantic storm on record, had sharpened the focus of Floridians who were somewhat indifferent about preparing for past hurricanes.

“A lot of times they end up having hurricane parties here instead of evacuating,” Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark said by phone. “That’s been the opposite this time around.”

Monroe County includes the Florida Keys, which ordered evacuations for all residents and tourists. Clark said she saw a steady stream of traffic leaving the travel destination as she drove to work early on Wednesday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center forecasts that Irma may strike southern Florida on Saturday, when it could still be a major hurricane.

As it neared Puerto Rico on Wednesday with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (295 kph), Irma was a Category 5 storm, the highest level on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity.

“This storm is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told a news conference on Wednesday, referring to one of the costliest storms in U.S. history that struck southern Miami-Dade County 25 years ago.

For south Florida, Hurricane Irma “is a once-in-a-generation storm. It’s the Big One for us,” Ed Rappaport, acting director of the hurricane center, told WFOR-TV in Miami on Wednesday evening.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Wednesday evening announced mandatory evacuations for most of the county’s coastal cities beginning at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) on Thursday. Miami-Dade has a population of 2.7 million.

The evacuation orders affect more than 100,000 residents, the Miami Herald reported.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine had already urged residents of that city on Tuesday to evacuate.

“We don’t want any heroes,” he said. “We want people to bring themselves to a safer place than a barrier island.”


Officials across Florida said they saw signs of people taking Irma more seriously than past storms.

Residents were stocking up on water and batteries and even complaining that county leaders were not being quick enough to announce evacuations, said Don Walker, spokesman for Brevard County Emergency Management.

Houston officials were criticized for not ordering an evacuation ahead of the flooding that left hundreds of people in the country’s fourth-largest city trapped in their homes.

“Everyone is really in tune with this storm system. My neighbors are talking about it, and we don’t usually do that,” Walker said.

For years, many Florida residents, joined by an ever-growing number of newcomers, paid little heed to hurricane warnings as most opted to stay in their homes, county officials said.

Not this time around.

“I’ll tell you for the community, heck yeah, they’re taking this more seriously,” said Teri Barbera, spokeswoman for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, noting that many stores were out of bottled water by Monday. “They’re not playing.”

Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami and Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina; Editing by Peter Cooney