TALLAHASSEE - Florida's West Coast is now expected to take the brunt of potentially devastating Hurricane Irma, as the system started making itself felt Saturday across South Florida.
“As we know, the direction of storms like Hurricane Irma can change in an instant, and the latest forecast track has put the storm heading directly up Florida's West Coast,” Gov. Rick Scott said Saturday morning.
Power outages were already being reported Saturday in the state, and additional evacuation orders were issued up the West Coast. Runs on gas have reached the Panhandle, as forecasts showed life-threatening storm surges of up to 8 feet in Tampa and 15 feet in Southwest Florida.
Public schools, state colleges and universities and state government offices have already been closed for Monday. The state Senate extended its closure to Tuesday.
“After noon tomorrow, it will not be safe for anyone in these coastal counties along the West Coast to travel, and it will not be safe for the law-enforcement officers who will need to rescue you,” Scott said.
At 11 a.m. Saturday, Irma was skirting northern Cuba, carrying 125 mph maximum sustained winds, about 175 miles southeast of Key West. The storm, which earlier in the week was barreling through the Caribbean with 185 mph winds, was on a western course that is expected to curve to the north. The system is expected to strengthen again as it crosses to Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane warnings reach to Fernandina Beach on the East Coast and to the Aucilla River, which is east of Tallahassee, along the Gulf Coast.
More than 6.3 million people have been told to evacuate, and by noon Saturday more than 54,000 people were already in 320 shelters opened throughout Florida.
Officials --- overseeing gridlocked interstates, hurried efforts to bring in fuel and the opening of storm shelters --- have struggled to estimate how many people have heeded the calls to take flight during the past week.
“I'm not saying the numbers don't exist, we have plans that highlight all of those, and highlight what the different evacuation zones look like and who are in them,” Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said Friday.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, noting “Irma will devastate Florida,” announced Saturday that the Florida Forest Service has requested help from Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi to clear roads and remove debris after the storm.
Irma didn't waste time knocking out power, with Florida's electric grid expected to continue taking a beating when the center of the storm goes up the state starting Sunday.
As the first tropical-storm force winds of the hurricane reached the state, Florida Power & Light crews by 9 a.m. were handling reports of power outages for about 25,000 customers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
The company, which has just over 2 million customers in Miami-Dade and Broward, has projected that more than 80 percent of its 10 million customers across Florida --- 4.1 million of its 5 million customer accounts --- may experience power outages as the storm crosses the state.
St. Petersburg-based Duke Energy Florida is also anticipating “significant, widespread power outages” for its 1.8 million customers in Florida.
Duke Energy Florida has about 7,000 line workers, tree professionals and damage-assessment crews set up for Irma, with additional assistance on the way from the Midwest.
FPL has pre-positioned more than 13,500 recovery workers from its staff and other states at 20 staging areas.
On Saturday every seaport in Central and South Florida --- Port of Key West, Port Everglades, PortMiami, Port of Palm Beach, Port Canaveral, Port Tampa Bay, Port Manatee, Port Tampa Bay, Port St. Pete and Port of Ft. Pierce --- was closed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
JAXPORT in Jacksonville and the Port of Fernandina were advised that gale-force winds are expected within 48 hours and no more inbound traffic would be accepted.
At Port of Panama City and Port of Pensacola, where operations remain open,sustained gale-force winds were expected within 48 hours.
The 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard have been activated for security and relief efforts, with additional troops possible from North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Connecticut, Mississippi and New Jersey.
The Florida Park Service has closed 132 state parks and five campgrounds, with six more parks and one additional campground closing Sunday.