Lines of cars snaked around those gas stations that remained open in Miami, as Florida prepared for Hurricane Irma
Sarasota (United States) (AFP) - With Hurricane Irma aiming squarely at south Florida, officials ordered hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate Thursday, amid worries that fuel shortages and traffic bottlenecks could thwart the mass exodus.
In a state with a population of more than 20 million, Governor Rick Scott warned people on both coasts to be ready to get out before Irma arrives, with the brunt of the storm forecast to strike south Florida late Saturday.
Experts hope to avoid mass casualties by ushering residents out of the riskiest areas, in what could be the largest US evacuation since Hurricane Rita forced 3.7 million people to leave Texas and Louisiana in 2005.
"Look at the size of this storm. It's huge. It's wider than our entire state," Governor Scott told a press conference Thursday morning, warning of 10 feet (three meters) of storm surge, enough to reach the roofs of many homes.
"Be prepared to evacuate," he warned. "We can't save you once the storm starts."
Already, 31,000 people have fled the Florida Keys chain of islands, and tens of thousands along the southeast Florida coast were expecting mandatory evacuation orders by midday. About 150,000 people in Miami Beach and other barrier islands off Miami are being told to leave.
Sign of the growing alarm about the damage Irma could wreak in the southeast US, authorities in the neighboring state of Georgia ordered the mandatory evacuation of the city of Savannah and other coastal areas, affecting more than 300,000 people.
In Miami Beach, people were filling the trunks of their cars with water and other provisions, and sharing contact information with their neighbors as they prepared to hit the road.
"I have been through hurricanes before but this one is so huge," said Robert McCleary, a 67-year-old retiree. "I am just so worried about the homeless, about the poor."
- Fuel shortage -
President Donald Trump voiced serious concern Thursday as Hurricane Irma cut a path of devastation across the Caribbean toward the US, declaring in the Oval Office: "We are with the people of Florida."
"We are very concerned, we are working very hard," Trump said of the storm, which has turned tropical island paradises into scenes of ruin.
"Florida is as well prepared as you can be for something like this, now it's just a question of what happens."
The only way to drive out of the Florida peninsula is northward, and motorists leaving Miami have found many gas stations cordoned off with yellow tape, signaling they were closed due to lack of fuel.
Lines of cars, some more than a dozen deep, snaked around those that remained open. Often those lines jutted into the main roadways, causing traffic to pile up.
"People are freaking out," said Yasmine Herrera, a hair stylist who works south of Miami.
She told AFP she had heard rumors of fights breaking out at gas stations, and experienced a tense standoff herself when two drivers blocked her in at a pump, each wanting to fill their tanks after her and each refusing to yield and allow her to exit. Eventually, one relented.
The governor acknowledged "issues" with fuel and said he had asked the White House and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to waive rules and regulations in order to get as much fuel as possible into the state and ports.
He also called on state law enforcement to provide escort services for gas trucks.
"While we're making progress, you will see lines or outages unfortunately," Scott said.
- Traffic bottlenecks -
Traffic has started to pile up on main highways, as cars heading north bottleneck near the larger cities, including Miami, Fort Myers and Sarasota.
Elderly residents, those in small hospitals and people living in mobile homes were among the first to be evacuated.
In Miami-Dade County, which is home to some 2.7 million people, those in coastal zones nearest the Atlantic were under mandatory evacuation.
"Leave now. The roads are going to get worse the longer you wait," Governor Scott said Thursday morning.
He urged people to use apps like GasBuddy and Florida511 to check for open fuel stations and traffic conditions.
Highway patrol and National Guard Officers would do all they could to keep roads open, even allowing motorists to drive on the edges if need be.
"If we see too much traffic, you will be able to drive on the shoulder. We are not there yet," said Scott.
He also said the utility giant Florida Power and Light would close its Turkey Point power plant, where twin nuclear reactors operate, "at some point."
FPL said Hurricane Irma's size and strength suggest that "much of Florida could be impacted by this major storm, resulting in extended power outages," according to an email sent to customers.
"We are preparing for the possibility of having to rebuild our electrical infrastructure in the worst hit areas."