The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow tells you what to expect from Hurricane Irma as it continues to barrel toward the U.S. mainland on Wednesday, Sept. 6. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

MIAMI — As Caribbean islands pummeled by Hurricane Irma began to grapple with the monster storm’s toll Thursday, nervous residents of South Florida packed highways seeking safer ground amid forecasts warning that Irma posed an increasing threat to the highly populated area.

The National Hurricane Center said a hurricane watch will likely be called later Thursday for parts of South Florida and the Keys — both areas that have begun ordering evacuations — as Irma’s Category 5 force pinwheeled eastward through the Caribbean leaving a wake of leveled neighborhoods, ravaged seafronts and at least 10 people dead.

Irma continued grinding onward toward the Bahamas with winds hitting 180 mph and higher gusts registered, according to the hurricane center, which warned of storm surges capable of swallowing huge sections of the coast.

After the Bahamas, Irma’s expected path takes aim at Florida, including the ribbon of cities, dense suburbs and swampland that are home to more than 6 million people from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade counties.

By Thursday morning, as Irma’s eye was moving north off the island of Hispaniola, aid workers in Haiti — a vulnerable nation already devastated by a major earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — were preparing for yet another potential disaster.

[Tracking Irma’s possible paths]

Concern centered on Haiti’s flood-prone north, which was expected to be hardest hit. Haiti raised its hurricane alert level to red, its highest, and the north coast remained under a hurricane watch as the central coast faced the threat of tropical storm winds and rain.

Nevertheless, aid groups said the national hurricane response appeared to be slow. Many evacuations in the north were set to unfold as rains rapidly approached and low quality shelters were still being finished.

School was canceled across the country as national warnings went out through social media, radio and television. In some remote towns, word to take shelter was being spread largely via local officials with bullhorns. Though Irma’s eye was on track to pass offshore, even a glancing blow could flood roads and bridges, bring mudslides and topple rickety housing, dealing yet another blow to the hemisphere’s poorest nation.

One major concern was the spread of a cholera outbreak already plaguing the island nation. In one sense, Haiti’s series of major disasters gave the nation at least one benefit: A large existent presence by international aid groups. Many groups said they were poised with teams and vehicles to help bring in medical and food aid.

[Extreme Category 5 Irma crashes into Caribbean, sets sights on Florida and Southeast U.S.]

What Irma has left behind so far was a string of once-lush islands scoured clean by the storm’s force. Aerial images released by the Dutch Defense Ministry on the island of Saint Martin showed scores of homes with roofs sheered away and palm trees stripped bare. French authorities said at least eight people have died on the island, whose controlled is shared with the Netherlands.

The president of the territorial council, Daniel Gibbs, told Radio Caraibes International that Saint-Martin is “95 percent destroyed.” On the islands of Barbuda and Anguilla, meanwhile, at least one death was reported on each.

Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, toured the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6. (ABS TV Antigua)

On St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours huddled with her husband and 1-year-old daughter in a basement apartment. “It will take years for this community to get back on its feet,” she told the Associated Press.

Irma’s sustained winds — which hit 185 mph on Thursday — were the strongest recorded for an Atlantic hurricane making landfall, tied with the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane.

On Virginia Key, at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, professor David Nolan was putting heavy plastic over computer terminals, in case the roof leaks during the storm.

He said his family plans to drive to Atlanta, while he’ll ride it out behind storm shutters at his home in Coral Gables. But that plan could change, he said. Lots of people are still thinking this through.
The mood in South Florida, he said, “is frantic.”

“Anxious, frantic,” chimed in his colleague, senior research associate Brian McNoldy.

“I saw a gas-station-induced car accident happen right in front of me yesterday,” Nolan said.

McNoldy, who contributes to The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, called up the model forecasts and showed how Irma is expected to move in more or less a straight line toward Florida, west by northwest, but then hang a sharp right to the north.

[On the Caribbean’s tiny islands, death and devastation left by Irma]

That track could send it right to McNoldy’s cubicle and on up the Gold Coast, as if the storm were trying to grind away a century of urbanization.

“That’s extremely bad,” he said. “That’s basically every East Coast Florida city. This could easily be the most expensive U.S. storm if this happens.”

The Florida Keys are particularly vulnerable. Monroe County, home to the Keys, began mandatory evacuations of tourists and visitors Wednesday morning. The county’s 80,000 residents were ordered to evacuate beginning Wednesday evening.

The main drag in Key West, Duval Street, was largely empty by late Wednesday. Many storefronts already had been sandbagged and boarded up. But some people will ride out the storm — as Floridians often do even when told they’re supposed to leave.

At the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, general manager Jacqui Sands said she’s not going anywhere. She is charged with securing the legendary author’s 19th-century estate as well as ensuring the safety of the 55 cats that roam the lush grounds here, many of them with six and seven toes on each paw.

“If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t stay,” Sands said. “My kids told me to get the hell out. But I have an obligation to take care of the building and the cats.”

The petite 72-year-old will be joined by nine employees, four of whom she has sent off to retrieve storm shutters and plywood from a nearby storage facility to board up windows and doors. “They couldn’t leave because either they don’t have a car or couldn’t find a flight out of here,” she said. “I think we are going to be fine.”

Sophia Johnson, 6, talks to her mom, Kace Johnson after they finished filling 10 sandbags with dirt provided by Sarasota County at the Newtown Estates Recreation Center on Sep. 6, 2017, in Sarasota, Fla. (Mike Lang/Sarasota Herald-Tribune via AP)

At the Key West Port, the cruise ships had long departed for safer docks, and the inlet was devoid of pleasure craft. Only four small vessels remained in the marina, including a 50-foot boat that ferries residents and hotel guests to and from Sunset Key, a private, 27-acre resort located in waters nearby.

The ship’s captain, William “Harry” Privette, 80, said he’s never been caught in a hurricane.

“Every time, it either veered off or never arrived,” he said. He hopes to keep his track record intact. “I know what happens when they show up. I don’t want to be here when this one does. It’s nasty.”

[South Florida empties as Irma takes aim]

On the mainland, Miami-Dade County was set to begin evacuations Thursday morning along the coast, while Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said evacuations would begin there at noon for people in the eastern portion of the county that runs alongside the Atlantic Ocean.

“This storm is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said Wednesday, emphasizing that even with Irma’s uncertain trajectory, officials were preparing for a direct impact. “Do not sit and wait for the storm to come. It is extremely dangerous and deadly and will cause devastation. Get prepared right now.”

Scott, who earlier this week declared a statewide emergency, has warned that Irma could require large-scale evacuations and severely impact areas battered last year by Hurricane Matthew, which sent punishing flooding into parts of the state. A state of emergency was also declared in North Carolina and South Carolina on Wednesday.

Hurricane watches will likely be issued for parts of FL today. TS winds expected to arrive in south FL and the Keys on Saturday

— NHC Atlantic Ops (@NHC_Atlantic) September 7, 2017

Officials across Florida responded to the dire forecasts by slowly shutting down the contours of daily life. Schools closed; the NFL postponed the Miami Dolphins’ season opener scheduled for Sunday; the University of Central Florida in Orlando, which could face punishing weather if Irma crawls up the coastline, moved a football game to Friday night; and the University of Miami — the Hurricanes — announced the cancellations of its football game set for this Saturday in Arkansas so the team doesn’t have to travel.

Storm preparations also were underway at two nuclear sites in Florida — 45-year-old Turkey Point 25 miles south of Miami and 41-year-old St. Lucie further north along the coast. They belong to NextEra, a utility with about 5 million electricity customers in Florida. NextEra said that it will shut down its four nuclear reactors before Irma makes landfall. That will reduce the heat in the reactors and the need for electricity.

NextEra also said that its reactors could weather a loss of electricity of the sort that caused a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors after the tsunami there in 2011. NextEra spokesman Peter Robbins said that the nuclear plants have diesel generators located 20 feet above sea level inside reinforced concrete structures.

People across Florida who planned to ride out the storm were clearing store shelves of water, food and supplies, and people trying to drive north had to search for gas — and hotel rooms. Many streamed to South Florida’s airports.

But early Wednesday morning, it was hard to get a seat on a plane going anywhere. Seats that were available still for purchase at Florida airports were often exorbitantly expensive, in the range of $2,000.
Some of those who were leaving said modern technology, and modern communications, helped inform their decisions — and made them easier.

“Back in the 1800s, people wouldn’t have had a warning,” said Renee Gray, flying with her husband, Mitch, to their home in Nashville after evacuating from Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, at 4 a.m.

“Today we’ve got warnings, and we have to take advantage of that.”

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katia has prompted a hurricane warning in Mexico’s Veracruz state. The National Hurricane Center said little overall motion on the storm was expected though late Thursday.

Alvarado reported from Key West, Fla. and Berman from Washington. Anthony Faiola in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Daniel Cassaday in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Angela Fritz, Jason Samenow, Sandhya Somashekhar, Brian Murphy and Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report, which will be updated throughout the day. 

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