(CN) – Hurricane Irma, a powerful, Category 4 storm currently barreling toward a landfall in South Florida Sunday morning, is poised to become be the state’s costliest hurricane ever, with the damage, by some estimates, potentially reaching $100 billion before the crisis is over.
The National Hurricane Center said Friday the hurricane, downgraded to a Category 4 storm, will make landfall somewhere between the Florida Keys and the Jupiter Inlet on the state’s east coast Sunday before racing up the peninsula.
“We are running out of time, the storm is almost here,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Friday during a news conference at the West Palm Beach headquarters of the South Florida Water Management District.
“We are about to experience a storm like we’ve never seen. If you’re told to evacuate, you should do so … we can rebuild your home. We cannot rebuild your life,” Scott said.
Later, the government said Irma is expected to “have major and life-threatening impacts from coast-to-coast in Florida.”
“If you are in the South Florida evacuation zone, you need to leave now, but all Floridians should be prepared to evacuate soon,” he said.
On Twitter Friday, President Donald Trump wrote, “Hurricane Irma is of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen. Be safe and get out of its way, if possible.”
The Hurricane Center’s latest advisory said Hurricane Irma continues to pack 155 mile-per-hour winds, and is expected to start whipping the southeast Florida coast, and the Florida Keys, with lashing wind and rain Saturday night.
One of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, Irma has already caused at least 24 deaths, including nine in the French Caribbean, three in the U.S. Virgin Islands, three in Puerto Rice, and one each in Anguilla, Barbuda and on the Dutch side of St. Martin.
The storm slammed the Turks and Caicos Islands before dawn on Friday and was en route to the southeastern Bahamas.
“The core of the hurricane will then move between the north coast of Cuba and the Bahamas during the next day or two, and be near the Florida Keys and the southern Florida Peninsula Sunday morning,” the hurricane center said in its 5 a.m. advisory Friday.
In addition to its wind and rain, Irma is currently pushing a storm surge as high as 15 to 20 feet ahead of it. Much of the South Florida coast, including the Keys, could face up to five to 10 feet of storm surge, forecasters said.
All of South Florida was put under a hurricane and storm surge warning overnight, meaning hurricane force winds are expected in the region within about 36 hours.
The current projected path of Hurricane Irma has it marching directly north over central Florida, and then easing somewhat west as its passes into Georgia.
Among the millions closely watching the storm’s progress is Shahid Hamid, director of the Extreme Event Institute at Florida International University in Miami, has performed thousands of simulations of hurricane storm damaged using complex computer modeling.
He told Courthouse News Friday that he and his team have found that one of the worst case scenarios the state could face is a strong Category 5 hurricane striking Miami from below — “slightly inland, so the right side of the storm hits the coast,” he said — and then moving through Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Orlando.
In that case, Hamid said, “the insured loss can potentially reach $150 billion.”
“Hurricane Irma could follow a similar path though with weaker intensity … [so] the $100 billion estimate that has been reported in the media is reasonable,” he said, adding, “if the forecast track becomes reality this could be the costliest hurricane.”
Once we have data on the exact track we will be running our model to come up with a preliminary estimate of the losses.
Hamid said once the Extreme Event Institute has data on the exact track Hurricane Irma follows, researchers will run a model to come up with a preliminary estimate on real losses.
But with the hurricane approaching, Hamid said there’s no doubt that central and South Florida’s tourism sector will be hard hit, “and it will take time to recover and convince tourists to come back.”
“To a lesser degree the agriculture will be impacted and we may see some impact on prices,” he said.
Hamid also noted that only 18 percent of Florida homeowners have flood insurance, a fraction of the number who have windstorm insurance.
As a result, he said, as happened after previous hurricanes, there could be an uptick in litigation over whether losses incurred during Irma were due to flooding or the excessive winds.
Gov. Scott said 7,000 members of the National Guard have been activated and that utilities in the state have staged trucks and crews in strategic locations to deal with power outages after the hurricane passes.
He also said nearly 20 million gallons of gasoline have been delivered to the Port of Tampa and Port Everglades in the past 12 hours to ease shortages being experienced by evacuees. However, he cautions that those deliveries will soon cease with the storm growing nearer.
The forecast track, which encompasses the entire Florida Peninsula and west to Panama City places the center of the storm just north of Lake Okeechobee at about 8 p.m. Sunday. Lake Okeechobee is the region’s reservoir, used to store the heavy rains of hurricane season and to provide agriculture, including the massive sugar cane operations immediately to the lake’s south during the dry months.
The Army Corps of Engineers began discharging Lake Okeechobee water to the St. Lucie River to the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the right on Tuesday to allow extra water storage ahead of Hurricane Irma.
The discharges to the St. Lucie River will be roughly 116 million gallons per day, according to aCorps’ news release. For the Caloosahatchee, it will be closer to 258 million gallons per day. The structures are capable of discharging as much as 11 billion gallons of water per day into the St. Lucie River.
“We want to be ready for the heavy precipitation from Irma,” Col. Jason Kirk, the Jacksonville district commander, said in a written statement. “We anticipate direct rain over the lake could add a foot to the water level.”
The South Florida Water Management District also began releasing water from smaller canals Sunday to make way for increased rainfall.
Gov. Scott said Friday that the dike at the south end of Lake Okeechobee is expected to hold, although some water “may slosh over the top” due to the extraordinary winds.
The area south of the lake has been a focal point for evacuation efforts, he said, but a breach in the dike either during the storm or in the weeks afterward is not expected.
In northern Florida, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told residents instituted a mandatory evacuation for residents living along the coast, but recommend those living inland also consider getting out — particularly if they live in mobile homes.
All area beaches were to be closed by 10 a.m. Saturday, and alcohol sales are to be cut off at 6 p.m.
The nearby communities of St. Augustine, Hastings, and Anastasia and Amelia Islands have also announced mandatory evacuations.
Meanwhile in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday told those living in the projected path of Hurricane Irma in his state should comply with the state’s mandatory evacuation order or stay at their own risk.
“I want to caution all Georgians that just because the weather now may appear to be calm, do not take that for granted,” Deal said. “This is a rapidly moving hurricane … We all remember the level of destruction most recently with Hurricane Matthew. We understand this has the potential of being even more devastating.”
Deal has declared thirty Georgia counties, most of them on the coast, as being in a state of emergency. On Thursday he ordered the evacuation of all communities east of Interstate-95, including Chatham County and the city of Savannah.
More than likely, people in areas affected by the hurricane will have no drinking water, no waste water, and no electricity, he said.
Homer Bryson, director of Georgia’s emergency management agency, amplified the governor’s point, reminding residents “it takes time to get those back online.”
“The reality is it’s best if you leave, allow those resources to come back online, and then return once the resources are back up and running,” Bryson said.
Russell McMurry, of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said evacuees should have a specific destination and a backup destination in mind.
He also said should last-minute evacuees find themselves driving in heavy rains, they should avoid driving onto streets filled or filling with water.
And he stressed that no one should go near downed power lines.
“When in doubt, there’s no doubt what you do,” McMurry said.
Deal concluded his news conference by asking Georgians to “demonstrate the kindness and concern you show every day.”
“Help us help you. Don’t take chances,” the governor said. “Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. If you’re in a mandatory evacuation area, evacuate, because we can’t risk the lives of those trying to help others in areas we’ve already identified as hazardous to people’s safety.”
“We’ll get through this; we’re a resilient state,” Deal said. “We’ll work as quickly as possible to put people back at their homes after the danger has subsided.”
Amanda St. Germain, in Jacksonville, Florida; Marilyn Aciego, in Lake County, Florida; and Eva Fedderly in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.