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South Florida braces for the worst as ‘nuclear hurricane’ nears

By Evan Halper and Laura King • Sep 7, 2017 at 11:44 PM

MIAMI — Hurricane Irma took aim at South Florida on Thursday, threatening millions with historic winds, huge storm surges and unrelenting rainfall as it left behind a trail of still-uncharted devastation in the Caribbean and a death toll that climbed to at least 13.

As the monster Category 5 storm tracked west-northwest with 175-mph winds, the caprices of wind and water saved impoverished Haiti and the Dominican Republic from a direct hit. But Irma bore down late Thursday on other Caribbean targets: the low-lying Turks and Caicos, and parts of the Bahamas.

Meanwhile, the peril to the U.S. mainland grew.

“It has become more likely that Irma will make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state,” the National Hurricane Center said.

With South Florida under a hurricane watch, Philip Levine, the mayor of vulnerable barrier-island Miami Beach, called Irma a “nuclear hurricane.” Irma’s leading edge was expected to reach Florida as soon as Saturday, and Gov. Rick Scott spoke of a “catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.”

The hurricane has left a string of small, devastated Caribbean islands counting their dead and struggling to restore links to the outside world. Chaotic conditions hampered efforts to compile a fatality toll, which officials said would probably grow.

The deaths included three people in the U.S. Virgin Islands and three more in Puerto Rico, their respective governors said, and the Netherlands government confirmed a fatality in St. Maarten, the shattered Dutch side of the island it shares with St. Martin, a French territory. French officials, however, revised downward from eight to four the number of people confirmed dead on the French side.

As the storm passed Puerto Rico, it dealt the U.S. territory what was in meteorological terms a glancing blow, but one that landed like a stunning punch, exacerbated by already faltering infrastructure. The governor, Ricardo Rossello, reported that a million people were left without power, and the National Weather Service in San Juan warned of flash-flooding danger from swollen rivers.

Irma’s howling winds weakened slightly to 175 mph as the eye passed to the north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But even a sideswipe by such an intense storm carried devastating power. Hispaniola, the island the two countries share, was lashed by gales and torrential rains.

In the north of Haiti, where a hurricane last year killed some 900 people, many learned of government evacuation orders only from neighbors or relatives. Frightened people in the country’s north cut branches from trees to try to shore up roofs, said Mishelle Mitchell of the humanitarian group World Vision, who was in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

In South Florida, home to some 6 million people, flight from the mighty storm that was bearing down turned chaotic at times, with the state’s two main south-north arteries clogged with traffic and gasoline in short supply. Florida Highway Patrol troopers were trying to keep vehicles moving, towing disabled cars left by the roadside and escorting fuel trucks.

Florida lore is full of die-hards who ride out hurricanes, and defying a storm’s fury is romanticized in films like the 1948 noir classic “Key Largo.” But Scott, in a televised public briefing, pleaded with any holdouts in evacuation zones, especially in the Florida Keys, to obey orders to depart.

“Leave. Get out,” the governor said, addressing those who had been told to go. “We can’t save you once the storm starts.”

The Keys, where a mandatory evacuation order was in place, were emptying, with 31,000 people having departed as of Thursday morning, Scott said. An advisory evacuation was in place in Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, and the order was mandatory in low-lying areas.

The expanded evacuation zone, now encompassing about 700,000 people, covers downtown Miami and other parts of the city, plus southern parts of Miami-Dade County.

It also included Homestead, Coral Gables, South Miami, Miami Shores and North Miami Beach, authorities said.

In Miami Beach, jogger Andrea Ratkovic, 51, was preparing to head home to Oklahoma after the storm scrapped a planned trip to Barbados. First, though, she took a break from her run to help a sandbag-filling crew.

She could sympathize with what Floridians faced, she said, after living through tornadoes back home with terrifyingly high winds.

“There is little you can do to prepare for those,” Ratkovic said. “You just have to run like a bug underground.”

While the storm’s track remained uncertain, a widening area braced for its effects. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide emergency declaration on Thursday, a day after South Carolina did so.

President Donald Trump was briefed in the Oval Office about storm preparations and Irma’s projected path. Earlier, he tweeted a reminder to those in Irma’s path to “be careful, be safe,” as the storm approaches.

As Thursday dawned, daylight harshly illuminated the storm’s destructive rampage through the hardest-hit eastern Caribbean islands, many with Colonial-era links to Western European countries.

Boats were tossed onto land. Electrical wires dangled. Streets had turned to rivers. Structures were splintered, with doors and shutters leaning at crazy angles.

“It’s an enormous disaster — 95 percent of the island is destroyed,” Daniel Gibbs, chairman of a local council on the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, told Radio Caribbean International.

France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, told French radio that more dead and injured were likely to be discovered as authorities “explore all the shores.”

A Dutch warship docked at St. Maarten, the Netherlands’ military said. The Dutch interior minister, Ronald Plasterk, who confirmed at least one death, said there could be more casualties.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte earlier said preliminary assessments had painted a bleak picture of the storm’s aftermath.

“There is no power, no gasoline, no running water,” Dutch media quoted him as saying. “Houses are underwater, cars are floating in the streets, and people are sitting in the dark, in ruined houses, cut off from the outside world.”

The independent island nation of Antigua and Barbuda reported overwhelming destruction on Barbuda, with 90 percent of buildings damaged or destroyed and one death reported. Prime Minister Gaston Browne, speaking to the BBC, called it “total carnage.”

Britain was dispatching two warships and hundreds of troops to aid people in its territories, including the British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who had predicted a “harsh” ultimate toll in his nation’s Caribbean territories, used the occasion to call attention to the dangers of global warming.

Macron, on an official trip to Greece, said he would visit the hurricane-ravaged French territories as soon as weather permitted.

Meanwhile, another Caribbean storm was lining up behind this one: Hurricane Jose, which has grown into a Category 2 storm. Those covered by a hurricane watch include some of the same islands battered by Irma.

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(Staff writer Halper reported from Miami and staff writer King from Washington. Special correspondent Les Neuhaus contributed from Homestead, Fla.)

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©2017 Los Angeles Times

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