MIAMI (CBSNewYork/AP) — A hurricane warning is now in effect for the Florida Keys and parts of South Florida as Hurricane Irma barrels toward the region with potentially catastrophic winds.
As CBS News’ Kenneth Craig reported Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has advised people on both coasts to evacuate.
The hurricane warning has been issued for much of South Florida. A storm surge warning is also in effect for coastal areas.
CBS2’s Lonnie Quinn reported late Thursday that Irma was not just Category 5 storm, but a “monstrous” Category 5 storm.
As of 11 p.m., Irma was at 920 millibars pressure, with a rotation speed of 165 mph – slightly lower than earlier in the day, but still firmly in dangerous Category 5 territory. Irma was headed west-northwest at 16 mph, and was 55 miles east-northeast of Great Inagua Island in the southern Bahamas.
The storm battered the Turks and Caicos Islands Thursday night. Already, the storm is being blamed for the deaths of at least 12 people on various islands.
Hurricane Irma raked through the Dominican Republic and Haiti earlier Thursday after uprooting trees and downing power lines in Puerto Rico.
That destruction paled in comparison to the catastrophic damage the storm caused in U.S. Virgin Islands just a day before. A total of four people died there.
The likely forecast calls for a turn to the north and a possible landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane late Saturday into Sunday, and may be in the Miami area around 2 p.m. Sunday. The likely forecast then calls for Irma to proceed right up the center of Florida as a Category 3 storm northward from Lake Okeechobee.
But not all models are in agreement — the European Model now shows a landfall on the West Coast of Florida. Other models show the storm tracking up the East Coast and staying some distance off
Whatever the case, Irma is forecast to cause major problems all around the state.
“This is a horrible scenario for the state of Florida,” Quinn said.
President Donald Trump on was briefed on preparations Thursday, and the federal government’s planned response to the storm. He urged Floridians to pay attention to local leaders and play it safe.
“To the people of Florida, we just want you to protect yourselves; be very, very vigilant and careful,” Trump said. “The governor is working very hard. FEMA, the Coast Guard, all of our people are very well-prepared.”
Scott late Thursday reminded residents that the hurricane will likely engulf the whole state, and while the East Coast of Florida will likely see the greatest impact, West Coast Florida residents should not be complacent.
“Look at the size of this storm — It is wider than our entire state and could cause major life-threatening impacts from coast to coast,” Scott said.
The center noted that Hurricane Irma was still an “extremely dangerous” Category 5 hurricane, although its winds had decreased slightly from 180 mph to 175 mph. Still Irma is the powerful hurricane ever in the Atlantic Ocean.
Scott continued to strongly urge people to evacuate Thursday if asked to do so by local officials. The governor waived tolls on all Florida highways and has told people if they were thinking about leaving to “get out now.”
“Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” Scott said Thursday. “Just because models show it going along the east coast, the west coast will still have hurricane conditions and these storms can move and change.”
Scott warned that Irma is “much worse and more devastating on its current path” than Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to hit the state.
“This storm is powerful and deadly,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of people along the barrier islands and coastal areas are under a mandatory evacuation order. WFOR-TV, CBS4 in Miami reported late Thursday that the evacuation zones together total about 650,000 people within the Miami area alone.
And an estimated 25,000 people or more left the Florida Keys alone 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.
“Leave. Get out,” Scott said. “We can’t save you once the storm starts.”
Lower Keys hospitals have already been evacuated, while hospitals in the rest of the Florida Keys were being evacuated on Thursday.
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, where forecasters predict the hurricane with winds of 180 mph could strike by early Sunday.
Boards have also gone up at Miami Beach businesses.
But because of the uncertainty in any forecast this far out, state and local authorities in Miami and Fort Lauderdale held off for the time being on ordering any widespread evacuations there.
“Listen to your local officials, stay tuned and follow. They will tell you when your area needs to be evacuated,” Scott said, adding again that anyone who is told to evacuate must “get out” for their own safety.
Heeding Scott’s warnings, thousands of residents flocked to Miami International Airport.
“I’m just nervous,” said Lili Martinez.
An emotional Martinez left the state for Connecticut with her 3-month-old in tow, but her husband Eddie stayed behind.
“Pack them up and send them away, and I’ll keep an eye on the house,” Eddie Martinez said.
Meanwhile, gas stations are barely keeping up with the demand. As soon as gas trucks pull in, drivers line up.
Gridlock gripped Interstate 95 all the way to Orlando as others tried to outrun Irma by car. By one estimate, nearly 40 percent of gas stations in Miami and Fort Lauderdale have run dry.
Police officers were keeping order directing traffic as desperate drivers with their most precious belongings lined up to fill up before they left Vero Beach.
In other parts of Florida, fuel was gone hours ago. One 7-Eleven in Port Orange had been waiting all day for a new shipment.
“Freaking out, wondering where they can find it,” said Amber McHugh of Port Orange.
Scott said the state is doing its best to get fuel into the state through Port Tampa and Port Everglades, but fuel lines and outages are inevitable.
“We desperately need gasoline,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida). “And that’s why I fired off an email last night to the head of FEMA to see if they can get gasoline into the state because people are running out.”
Eddie Neret had a full tank, but he was planning to stay.
But he said he might change his mind “tomorrow afternoon; tomorrow midday if it going to be a direct hit.”
Biscayne Bay sits at the end of Carlos Ramirez’s street.
“A worst-case storm surge, this house will be underwater,” he said, “so we have to get out of here.”
He is constructing a barrier to try to hold back some of the water. Afterward, he will head inland with family.
Carnival Cruise Lines, which has major operations out of Florida ports, has also canceled some of its Caribbean trips. Those passengers are now trying find a way out of the state ahead of the storm.
Eight of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams are staged and waiting for orders to deploy — one team is already in Puerto Rico. Each team has about 60 people and many already responded to Hurricane Harvey.
Scott also said FEMA and other federal agencies have pledged to help in case any bridges are destroyed – which could leave people stranded.
“This is a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen,” Scott said.
As CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported from near the Florida-Georgia state line, many people were heading north ahead of the storm Thursday afternoon.
“If it was just me and my wife, we probably try to stick it out,” said Jonathan McClanahan of Fort Myers. “But we couldn’t risk these babies.”
With his 2-year-old daughter Jaycee in his arms, McClanahan was taking a break late Thursday from sitting in a seemingly endless, slow moving traffic. He double checked what he and his wife Melanie rushed to bring in their frenzy to get out of Fort Myers.
“Clothes, diapers, wipes, all kinds of snacks,” McClanahan said. “Last thing we want to do is make a lot of stops and make this trip any longer than what it already is.”
The family of five — plus three dogs — has been jammed in their van for eight hours with eight more to go, heading to Virginia to safely escape Hurricane Irma.
“The biggest fear is when we come back we are not going to have a home,” McClanahan said.
It is a worry felt by most who are putting their lives first by packing up and heading north. Jodie and Steve Spaulding of Jupiter know it is the smart decision — but it’s by no means easy.
Jodie Spaulding said she thought about the possibility that her house might not be there when they return.
“Definitely emotional,” Spaulding said. “We love the life we’ve built and it’s scary. But you hope for the best.”
And they are making the best of it.
“This half we made comfortable — we can sleep back there, also have the dog back there,” Steve Spaulding said.
They are turning this emergency getaway into a mini vacation in North Carolina. Justin Cohen of Boca is doing something similar with his 7 and 8 year old kids.
“They’re scared, but excited for a road trip,” Cohen said.
They are heading farther north to stay with family on Long Island – with o itinerary yet for going home and no expectations for what possessions they will have left when they do.
“Hopefully, they’ll be there. If not, we’ll figure it out when we get back,” Cohen said.
All three families said us they left early on purpose — with hopes of avoiding the crushing traffic that awaits as more mandatory evacuations are ordered in Florida ahead of the life-threatening storm.
Meanwhile, airline passengers from South Florida filed into LaGuardia Airport, seeking a safe place to ride out the storm.
“I’m just happy to get out of Miami,” Florida resident Josh Noa told CBS2’s Magdalena Doris. “Don’t honestly want to know what’s going to happen after Irma passes by.”
“It was scary because you’d find a flight and then it would be gone,” said Florida International University student Sarah Quirk. “You’d put your name in and someone else would take it.”
Judy Fine and her dog Lola will be staying with her daughter in New York.
“I got the lasts two seats on the plane,” she said. “What happened at Hurricane Harvey and then when it showed it was going to be on the whole of Florida it’s like, there was nowhere to go.”
Ticket prices skyrocketed as desperate customers tried to book last-minute flights.
“I was really lucky to get a flight because the next day the flights doubled and tripled,” said Miami resident Donna Marano.
After receiving backlash, many airlines have set reduced fares. JetBlue is offering $99 flights out of areas under the threat of Irma, but the demand is high. They’ve already cancelled 150 flights.
“My brother is trying to get a flight right now, but everything is sold out,” said Miami resident Andres Garzon.
As many head away from the impending danger of Irma, Gihan Perera is flying into Miami, his bags packed with supplies.
“A cooker, batteries, a solar panel in case the power goes out cause it will probably go out for a couple of weeks,” he said.
Flying his wife, two kids and dog to New York was not an option.
“We’re going to try and grab the kids and dog and drive up to Atlanta,” he said. “There was nothing available nothing to do, nothing to buy, even if we had all the money in the world.”
Nicole Habina of New Jersey, studying at the University of Miami, got on the road as reports of the storm got worse.
“By the time we woke up in Miami on Tuesday, it was already a Category 5 and that’s when we realized there was absolutely no possibility of us staying in Miami,” she said.
There were seven dogs on a plane flying out from Fort Lauderdale. People told Doris they took wedding photos, passports and other essentials.
But others have decided to stick it out in Florida and hunker down.
“It’s scary,” said resident Danny Lemus. “It seems like it’s going to be a big one, but I’ve been through Andrew. But we’re going to hammer it out, see what happens.”
Meanwhile, 100 Army National Guard soldiers from Cape May are convoying down Interstate 95 in high-wheeled vehicles to South Florida as the Stamford-based health focused relief organization, Americares, is shifting some of its focus from Texas to the Caribbean and Florida.
“It is a challenging situation when are trying to respond to multiple disasters,” Garrett Ingoglia, vice president of emergency response, told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond. “It’s also going to be difficult if we need to get relief supplies in there. It’s going to be challenging.”
It has been almost 25 years since Florida took a hit from a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Andrew struck just south of Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph, killing 65 people and inflicting $26 billion in damage. It was at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.
The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic caused deaths and injuries, destroyed homes and flooded streets Wednesday as it roared through islands in the northern Caribbean.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it could rake the entire length of Florida’s east coast and push into Georgia and the Carolinas.
As Irma drew closer, Georgia and South Carolina declared a state of emergency. North Carolina declared a state of emergency taking effect Thursday morning.
The Hurricane Center has predicted that Irma will remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it passes the Turks and Caicos, parts of the Bahamas by Thursday night, and skirts Cuba on Friday night into Saturday.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)