Southeastern US Bracing for Worst of Hurricane Irma

Irma pummels Caribbean, heads to Florida.

(CN) – A hurricane watch was issued for South Florida Thursday afternoon as the southeastern United States braces for the arrival of the most powerful Atlantic storm in recorded history.

In preparation, Georgia’s governor on Thursday ordered a mandatory evacuation of coastal communities, including the city of Savannah, and South Carolina’s governor has announced a mandatory evacuation of the coast will go into effect Saturday morning.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also issued a statewide emergency declaration Thursday and told people to be prepared statewide even though projections suggest the storm could be much weaker by next week.

Cooper said tropical storms can be very dangerous, and “this storm can impact any part of North Carolina — all over our state from the mountains to the coast.”

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm with sustained 175-mph winds and more powerful gusts , has already killed at least 10 people in the Caribbean.

It is currently on track to make landfall in the U.S. on Sunday, somewhere between the Florida Keys and the Jupiter Inlet, and then to travel north over the length of the Florida peninsula, before crossing back over the Atlantic near Jacksonville, Florida.

It is currently forecast to come back onshore somewhere near Charleston, South Carolina and then head into North Carolina.

Speaking to reporters in the White House Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump said he is “very concerned” about Irma, saying that while it is not forecast to dump as much rain as Hurricane Harvey did over Houston, the winds of the current storm could be “devastating.”

“I spoke to [Florida] Gov. Rick Scott on numerous occasions and they are very well prepared, but the amount of wind that’s coming in …  we don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this. Some of the winds have gotten up to close to 200 miles an hour.”

Trump went on to say that “We have pretty good accuracy as to path. Unfortunately we’ll be knowing pretty soon. Hopefully we’ll have some good news. That’s what we’re waiting for is good news.”

Northbound traffic on the turnpike near Sunrise Blvd. is backed up in the rain as motorist prepare for Hurricane Irma on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 in Sunrise, Fla. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

In Florida, mandatory evacuations have been issued for the Keys and low-lying parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but Gov. Scott said others in Florida need to watch Irma’s path and be ready to move.

“The size of this storm is wider than our entire state and could cause dangerous and life threatening impacts coast to coast,” Scott said Thursday at a news conference Thursday morning. “Regardless of what coast you live on be prepared to evacuate.”

“Remember Hurricane Andrew is one of the worst storms in the history of Florida,” he continued. “This is much worse and more devastating on its current path.”

“Regardless of which (Florida) coast you live on, this is not a storm you can sit and wait through … You don’t have to drive hundreds of miles or leave the state to be safe. Go to shelters,” Scott said.

Officials in Pinellas County – on the west side the state — have mandated all coastal residents and those living in mobile homes to evacuate. Other counties on both sides of the state have voluntary evacuation orders as of Thursday afternoon.

In addition to the mandatory evacuations, millions of Floridians made their own decision to head north Wednesday and Thursday, causing massive gridlock along the state’s major arteries.

Scott on Thursday asked all gas stations in Florida stay open as long as possible to accommodate evacuees.

Toward that end, he promised  police escorts will get gas station employees out safely if necessary just ahead of Hurricane Irma.

The governor is urging residents to take only as much gas as they need to make sure there is enough for everyone who needs it, acknowledging that many stations are experiencing long lines and in some locations, pumps have run dry.

Scott activated 4,000 members of the Florida National Guard and established 18 emergency response teams.

He also ordered all state offices closed Friday, while school officials across the state closed schools starting Thursday.

Shelves are wiped clean in Eustis, Fla. as residents prepare for Hurricane Irma. Publix limited customers to two loaves of bread per person and they were gone in a matter of hours. Eustis is about 30 miles north of Orlando.. Photo by Marilyn Aciego.

Florida Highway Safety spokeswoman Beth Frady said state troopers escorted trucks from two Florida ports to stations in Marion and Martin counties overnight, and also were escorting trucks from Georgia to stations in Perry, in north central Florida near where Interstate 75 crosses Interstate 10.

“We are aggressively working around the clock to bring more fuel to Florida gas stations,” Scott said. “I have held calls with the federal government, fuel retailers and oil companies to find ways to address this issue. During these calls, I made it clear to retailers and oil companies that I must know exactly what they need so we can work to get fuel to Floridians fast.”

Residents who have chosen to stay swamped supermarkets and hardware stores for supplies. In nearly every county outside the Panhandle, water and gas are in short supply.

In Georgia on Thursday, Gov. Nathan Deal issued an evacuation order for all areas east of Interstate 95, all of Chatham County and some areas west of the interstate. He also expanded a previously announced state of emergency to 30 counties.

Deal’s order authorizes about 5,000 Georgia National Guard members to be on active duty to help people respond and recover.

Georgia hasn’t been hit by a hurricane with winds Category 3 or higher since 1898.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, has also declared a state of emergency. A major strike there would be the first in nearly 28 years.

On the international front, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said four people are confirmed dead and about 50 injured on the Caribbean island of St. Martin in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The prime minister said one person faces life-threatening injuries and two others were in serious condition.

St. Martin is part French and part Dutch; Dutch authorities have not reported any casualties.

French President Emmanuel Macron says he will visit French territories damaged by Hurricane Irma, “as soon as the weather allows.”

Speaking in Athens Thursday, Macron said he decided not to call off his two-day visit to Greece because prevailing weather conditions would have prevented a flight to the French territories, and an emergency government meeting in Paris was concluded before he left.

Britain is sending hundreds of troops and the Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean to its overseas islands battered by Hurricane Irma.

Britain has already sent one ship, RFA Mount Bay, to Anguilla, which took the full force of the storm.

Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said Thursday he had ordered HMS Ocean to head to the Caribbean from the Mediterranean. Fallon also said the U.K. was sending “a task group of several hundred troops, marines, engineers and additional helicopters.”

Irma has hit the British territories Anguilla, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos. – Developing story.

Dan McCue contributed to this report from Charleston, S.C.

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