South Florida’s shelters overflow, evacuation has chaotic start

By now, South Florida residents should be finished with preparations to ride out Hurricane Irma in place — or else be ready to evacuate immediately, local officials warned late Friday.

But even as officials urged residents on barrier islands and along the coast to leave, local shelters were filling up fast while the county scrambled to open more safe spaces after a chaotic beginning to the biggest evacuation effort in Miami-Dade history.

“This is an unprecedented event,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said early Friday as fleeing residents encountered closed shelters. “We are now rewriting the book as we go.”

Gimenez, who began evacuation orders on Thursday, acknowledged some glitches in the process of opening shelters for as many as 100,000 people.

“Opening a shelter is not as easy as people think,” said Gimenez during a noon conference at the county’s Emergency Operations Center in Doral.

Shortly after noon on Friday, Miami-Dade said it planned to open 42 shelters for Irma. But by 5:30 p.m., only 21 had been announced. At least six of those were turning people away, though it took at least an hour for Miami-Dade to confirm that Robert Morgan Senior High School was at capacity.

The information had already been confirmed by the county’s school superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, and Dennis Moss, the county commissioner from South Dade.

“People are coming in droves,” Moss said from South Dade High, where people seeking shelter at Robert Morgan had already been sent by county buses at the time. “I think it’s going to fill up.”

In Doral, Ronald Reagan Senior High filled to capacity about 90 minutes after it opened.

With Hurricane Irma forecast to make landfall in South Florida in less than 36 hours, Florida Gov. Rick Scott acknowledged that time was running out for many of those evacuating the coast.

“I hope everybody continues to get these shelters open. We’ve got a lot of evacuees,” Scott said during a National Hurricane Center briefing for emergency operations managers at 5:15 p.m.

At Tamiami Park, one of two pet-friendly hurricane shelters in Miami-Dade, beach chairs, TV tables and tents filled the cavernous hall where residents will ride out the storm.

As hundreds of people — along with dogs, cats, birds and even reptiles — settled in, Red Cross volunteers announced that the shelter had reached capacity.

Barking and meowing filled the gymnasium-like facility, filling Maria Gonzalez’s mind with memories that brought a smile.

“This reminds me of Guantanamo,” said Garcia, who fled her home in Key Largo. “This isn’t new to me. In 1994, I was caught fleeing Cuba to the United States and detained in Guantanamo for 17 months. Being cramped up with strangers isn’t an issue. What I do miss is my cafecito though.”

But others found evacuation more challenging.

Laura Correa and her husband Brayan said their house is not located inside an evacuation zone. It has shutters and plenty of supplies to hunker down through the storm.

“But we have three children,” she said, her eyes welling up. “I couldn’t risk that roof coming off and putting their lives in danger. It’s hard being here.”

Brayan Correa had rushed to Walmart and bought a camping tent to make the family’s stay more comfortable, Laura Correa said, sitting under a beach umbrella.

“I never thought I’d be in this situation,” she said.

In Broward County, seven of the 14 shelters had reached capacity by 4 p.m., Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief said. But an additional four shelters were scheduled to open at 6 p.m. Open shelter locations are posted on Broward.org/Hurricane.

Broward currently has a shelter capacity of 18,000, but additional shelters will be opened as the need arises, Sharief said, noting that 16,000 residents have called the county hotline since Tuesday.

“Irma is now a category 4 hurricane, but make no mistake: We are in a serious situation with this very dangerous and damaging storm,” Sharief said.

Everglades High School at 17100 SW 48th Ct. in Miramar is now available as a pet-friendly shelter in Broward County. Residents should bring personal supplies, in addition to a crate or carrier for their pet, food, toys, cat litter and vaccination information. Pet owners will be expected to care for their pets, which will be located in a designated area of the shelter.

Broward officials also announced that Port Everglades is closed, but fuel delivery will continue as weather permits.

All of Broward is under a hurricane warning and five cities (Fort Lauderdale, Hallandale, Deerfield Beach, Pompano and Hollywood) are under a storm surge warning — meaning they are expecting surges from five to 18 feet.

The last flight will leave Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport at 7:45 p.m. Friday. Officials said 276 flights have been canceled and at least 76 have been delayed.

Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking at Broward’s emergency operations center Friday, cautioned people about trying to venture north now. He said virtually every portion of Florida will be affected, and that the traffic and gas shortages may make it impossible to travel without getting stranded.

“This storm is unprecedented in size,” Rubio said. “Most of the storms we’ve lived through have hit a community — Miami, Fort Lauderdale. They hit Orlando. This storm is going to impact every major metropolitan area in the third-largest state,” Rubio said.

The Trump administration declared a statewide public health emergency due to the approaching storm.

“It’s a massive storm. It can be devastating,” Scott said on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Last tracked over Eastern Cuba and the Bahamas, Irma is forecast to make landfall in South Florida as a Category 4 hurricane early Sunday morning, although any wobble at this point could still change the storm’s course.

With a monster hurricane bearing down on Miami and a coast with 6 million people, Scott sounded a dire warning for the entire peninsula.

“This thing’s coming,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to go right through the middle of our state.”

In Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, officials urged residents to evacuate from coastal and low-lying areas at life-threatening risk of storm surge, which is predicted to raise water levels from 6 to 12 feet above ground.

Across South Florida early Friday, many highways and roads heading south were empty as stores closed, companies sent workers home and evacuees made their way to emergency shelters. But roads traveling north and local airports were packed as people continued to try and flee the storm.

For those who choose to stay, the state’s largest energy utility, Florida Power & Light, cautioned that its more than 5 million customers statewide could be without power for days or longer.

Eric Silagy, CEO of FPL, said the company has brought in reinforcements to help restore power as soon as possible after the storm. But he warned that some areas may not have anything left to restore.

“With these winds,” he said, “we’re not looking at restoration, necessarily. In some parts of our territory we’ll be looking at having to rebuild it.

“These kinds of winds can snap concrete poles,” he added, “and these kinds of winds can bend metal poles. So we’re going to see a lot of damage.”

Silagy said FPL has 13,500 workers positioned throughout the state ready to respond once storm conditions subside and winds fall below 40 mph. He said winds have to be below 35 mph in order for utility crews to raise their cherry pickers and start replacing power lines.

Federal officials urged Floridians to take Hurricane Irma seriously.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., Friday morning with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at his side, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Hurricane Irma will devastate Florida.

“Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or the southeastern United States,” he said, adding that anybody from Alabama to North Carolina should be watching the storm closely.

“It’s not a question of if Florida’s going to be impacted,” Long said. “It’s a question of how bad Florida’s going to be impacted.”

Price said Hurricane Irma also poses a grave threat to the health of Floridians, leading him to declare a public health emergency that makes it easier for physicians and hospitals to provide medical services for people with Medicare and Medicaid — public health insurance programs for the elderly, low-income and disabled.

In addition, Price said the federal healthcare agency has positioned more than 80 workers in South Florida for rapid deployment to local areas and to help plan for medical needs.

“Hurricane Irma has proven to be highly destructive,” said Price, who earlier declared public health emergencies for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands due to Hurricane Irma. Price also declared public health emergencies for Texas and Louisiana due to Hurricane Harvey.

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