BY JENNIFER KAY and GARY FINEOUT
MIAMI (AP) — Florida residents picked store shelves clean and long lines formed at gas pumps Wednesday as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 monster with potentially catastrophic winds of 185 mph, steamed toward the Sunshine State and a possible direct hit on the Miami metropolitan area of nearly 6 million people.
The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic destroyed homes and flooded streets as it roared through a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean. Meteorologists said Irma could strike the Miami area by early Sunday, then rake the entire length of Florida’s east coast and push into Georgia and the Carolinas.
“This thing is a buzz saw. I’m glad Floridians are taking it very seriously,” said Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach. “I don’t see any way out of it.”
At the same time, meteorologists warned that the forecast this far out contains a large degree of uncertainty. As a result, Florida residents and tourists received different messages from state and local authorities about when to evacuate and where to go.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott waived tolls on all Florida highways and told people if they were thinking about leaving to “get out now.” But in the same breath, he acknowledged that “it’s hard to tell people where to go until we know exactly where it will go.”
Amid the dire forecasts and the example set by Hurricane Harvey less than two weeks ago in devastated Houston, some people who usually ride out storms in Florida seemed unwilling to risk it this time.
“Should we leave? A lot of people that I wouldn’t expect to leave are leaving. So, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow!'” said Martie McClain, 66, who lives in the South Florida town of Plantation. Still, she was undecided, and worried about getting stuck in traffic and running out of gas.
As people rushed to buy up water and other supplies, board up their homes with plywood and gas up their cars, Scott declared a state of emergency and asked the governors of Alabama and Georgia to waive trucking regulations so gasoline tankers can get fuel into Florida quickly to ease shortages.
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 (265 kph), killing 65 people and inflicting $26 billion in damage. It was at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.
“We’ll see what happens,” President Donald Trump said in Washington. “It looks like it could be something that could be not good, believe me, not good.”
Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach — the unofficial Southern White House — sits in the path of the storm.
This is only the second time on Earth since satellites started tracking storms about 40 years ago that one maintained 185 mph winds for more than 24 hours, Colorado State’s Klotzbach said.
University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said it could easily prove the costliest storm in U.S. history.
Jeff Masters, director of the Weather Underground forecasting service, warned that high winds and large storm surges will damage expensive properties from Miami to Charleston, South Carolina.
“If it goes right up the Gold Coast like the current models are saying, then the Gold Coast is going to become the Mud Coast,” Masters said. “That includes Mar-a-Lago.”
While building codes were enforced more stringently in Miami after Andrew, the population since then has grown, coastal development has continued, and climate change has become more pronounced.
Also, housing constructed in Florida under 2001 rules is built to withstand only a Category 3 hurricane, or winds of up to 129 mph, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brock Long said.
As Irma drew closer, Georgia and South Carolina declared a state of emergency. North Carolina officials also kept a close eye on the hurricane.
In the Florida Keys, a chain of low-lying islands linked to the mainland by only a single highway, cars streamed northward in bumper-to-bumper traffic after visitors were instructed to leave Wednesday and residents were ordered to clear out on Thursday. The governor estimated as many as 25,000 people had already left.
“It’s just scary, you know? We want to get to higher ground. Never had a Cat 5, never experienced it,” said Michelle Reynolds, who was leaving the Keys as people filled gas cans and workers covered fuel pumps with “out of service” sleeves.
Broward County, which is north of Miami and includes Fort Lauderdale, ordered residents in coastal and low-lying areas and mobile homes to evacuate on Thursday. The mayor of Miami Beach asked the barrier island’s residents to consider leaving immediately, while Miami-Dade County officials encouraged tourists to go but held off issuing evacuation orders for residents.
Fineout reported from Tallahassee. Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Josh Replogle in Key Largo, Florida, also contributed to this report.
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