‘Everyone’s freaking out.’ Florida Keys evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma

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As Hurricane Irma bears down on the Florida Keys, spooked residents are packing up their belongings and heading north to

Spooked by horrific images from Hurricane Harvey and the approaching terror of Hurricane Irma, many residents of the Florida Keys joined the stream of tourists fleeing the path of a Category 5 storm Wednesday.

So far, Florida’s first mandatory evacuation of 2017 — a test case for what could be a region-wide flight away from the coast — doesn’t look anything like the 2005 catastrophe that left dozens dead and motorists stranded as Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf states.

On Wednesday morning, a caravan of cars and trucks — many towing boats — headed north out of the low-lying Keys. Traffic backed up south of Upper Matecumbe but wasn’t much worse than the usual workday rush or weekend crush. An estimated 12,000 visitors left the Keys. And even some old-time conchs who rode threats out in the past admitted they were rattled.

“I don’t think it’ll be safe anywhere,” said Melissa Norman, who was packing up belongings at her mobile home in Key Largo’s Blackwater Sound. She’s heading to Fort Myers, where she has an aunt.

The storm could follow wherever you go, warned her husband Jerry, 55. Instead of leaving, he plans to hunker down in the sturdy concrete building at Mile Marker 100 where he runs a towing business.

“Everyone’s freaking out,” said Norman, a burly man whose phone rings to the tune of “Smoke on the Water.”

“This one is different,” he said. “It’s scary.”

everyones-freaking-out-florida-keys-evacuate-ahead-of-hurricane-irma photo 1 Jerry Norman, owner at All American Towing and Tires in Key Largo climbs onto his tow truck on Wednesday, Sept. 6. Norman will be staying at his shop during the impending storm to assist the city if there is damage from Hurricane Irma. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

While traffic in the Keys was steady, jams are being reported near Orlando as Floridians flee the state. Hotels in north and central Florida are also receiving a wave of evacuees from the Miami area.

Tourists were ordered out of the Keys on Wednesday morning. Residents will be told they must leave Thursday, according to Gov. Rick Scott. Even Category 1 storms trigger mandatory evacuations in the Keys, where nearly 70,000 people live and there is only one road out — U.S. 1, also known as the Overseas Highway.

“If you’re told to evacuate, get out quickly,” Scott said at a Wednesday morning press conference in Marathon.

“If ever there was a storm to take seriously in the Keys, this is it,” Martin Senterfitt, Monroe County’s emergency management director, said in a statement. “The sooner people leave, the better.”

Sooner, rather than later

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Evacuation orders could be issued for coastal Miami-Dade and Miami Beach Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. Broward began evacuating low-lying areas and mobile homes on Wednesday. The city of Homestead, where gas stations are running out of fuel, declared a state of emergency before noon.

Travis Middlebrooks, driving south from Florida City to his job as a marble installer in Ocean Reef, said every gas station he passed Wednesday morning was empty.

“Hopefully, I have enough to get there and back,” Middlebrooks said.

As for the storm, he’s not sure yet if he’ll leave. “I really don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” Middlebrooks said. “If I can find a generator, I might ride it out.”

Florida Keys emergency managers at the Marathon Government Center issued a stern warning to the few stragglers who chose to ignore an evacuation mandate.

“If you stay, you think you’re a tough guy, then you’re on your own,” said Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “Don’t expect us to come get you.”

Elected officials are sometimes in a bind when it comes to issuing an evacuation, said Jay Baker, a professor emeritus at Florida State University who studies public response to hurricanes.

“It’s the cry wolf syndrome,” he said. “They’re afraid people won’t listen to the next evacuation if the previous storm missed.”

everyones-freaking-out-florida-keys-evacuate-ahead-of-hurricane-irma photo 7 Ben Cosme installs hurricane shutters at Key Largo Chocolates in Key Largo ahead of Hurricane Irma. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

But Baker said surveys have shown no drop-off in people’s willingness to listen even after what turned out to be unneeded evacuations. Mandatory evacuations can cost local governments millions of dollars in lost revenue and economic productivity.

In South Florida, evacuations are starting well before a storm expected to hit this weekend. There are fears that even those who aren’t in danger from Irma will panic and clog up roads and highways.

In that case, the Florida Highway Patrol is prepared to change the direction of lanes from south to north or east to west so more traffic can escape, said FHP spokesman Joe Sanchez.

“We have cameras watching the traffic flow,” Sanchez said, as workers pounded storm shutters over windows at FHP’s Miami-Dade headquarters.

Plans are also being made for hospital patients and those with special needs.

Patients from the Lower Keys Medical Center will be evacuated to Alabama on a C-130 by the North Carolina National Guard on Thursday.

Florida International University in West Dade will open a shelter for Monroe County special needs folks at 10 a.m. Thursday. At 4 p.m. it will be open to the general public and at 5 p.m. a pet friendly shelter at the Miami Dade County Fairgrounds and Expo will open.

Keys go dark

Even in its emptiest tourist season, the Keys were quiet.

Like other hotels, the famous Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, frequented by George H.W. Bush, had shut its doors and canceled reservations until next Wednesday. Lorelei Cabana Bar and Restaurant was boarded up. A Wendy’s in Marathon was one of the only restaurants open in the area. A line of cars waited for food before joining the north-bound procession.

“People over here are tripping,” said Angel Ortega, who was headed to join his family in Miami. “I’ve seen people take off all the way to Georgia, already.”

Absent was the usual pre-storm din of hammers crashing nails into plywood and drills setting screws on shutters.

everyones-freaking-out-florida-keys-evacuate-ahead-of-hurricane-irma photo 8 AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

All that was done, for the most part. People were leaving.

“I’m not staying in this,” said Keith Robertson, 59, who lives in a mobile home.

He figured his screened-in trailer wouldn’t stand up well to the storm. Robertson is a Hurricane Andrew survivor, who fought the winds from a Homestead hotel that blew to pieces.

“And I just bought new furniture in there,” Robertson said. “Everything is new in there, even the televisions.”

Charles Rabin: 305-376-3672, @ChuckRabin

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

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Article ‘Everyone’s freaking out.’ Florida Keys evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma compiled by www.miamiherald.com