Irma headed for an all-but-certain collision with southern Florida after devastating the Caribbean islands and swiping at Cuba as it threatens to become the most expensive storm in U.S. history.
With top winds of 155 miles (249 kilometers) an hour, the life-threatening storm swelled in size, meaning most of Florida will face hurricane-force winds as it cuts a path through the peninsula into Georgia. Irma, once again a Category 4 storm after it raked the Camaguey archipelago in Cuba at Category 5 strength, was expected to hit the Florida Keys on Sunday morning and head to the state’s southwestern coast that afternoon, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said early Saturday.
It has already left at least 22 people dead, thousands homeless across the Caribbean and threatens to rack up as much as $200 billion in damages.
“Much of Florida, especially the southern half, is in for a really long and horrible day on Sunday,” said Todd Crawford, lead meteorologist at The Weather Company in Andover, Massachusetts. Another example of “the power of nature on a heavily populated part of the U.S. coastline is imminent, and the costs will be great.”
Mandatory evacuations were issued across Florida, with around 650,000 people fleeing Miami-Dade as part of the largest evacuation the county has ever attempted. The state’s Department of Emergency Management estimated that 5.6 million people in the state have been ordered to leave their homes, Governor Rick Scott said in a statement. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate was evacuated, along with the rest of Palm Beach.
“Prepare for the worst possible,” Trump said Friday as he boarded Marine One, bound for Camp David.
Irma is one of three tropical systems churning in the region. Jose, the third major one of the 2017 season, is a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds as strong as 150 miles per hour and is forecast to pass close or just east of northern Leeward Islands before turning north-northwest and missing the U.S.
Katia weakened to a tropical storm after making landfall in Mexico as a Category 1 hurricane, the NHC said. Its expected to dissipate today, drifting to the east of the Sierra Madre mountains. The country was struck by a powerful earthquake on Friday, shaking buildings in the capital and triggering a tsunami warning.
Irma’s hurricane-force winds now extend for 140 miles, creating a danger zone that could reach from West Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast to Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico. That’s an “insurance industry nightmare” as every county in the state could see damaged roofs and power outages so vast it overwhelms repair efforts, said Chuck Watson, a Savannah, Georgia-based disaster modeler with Enki Research.
Damage could easily top $135 billion in Florida, with other economic losses pushing the price tag as high as $200 billion, Watson said. Preliminary estimates show losses across the Caribbean nearing $10 billion. CoreLogic said 8.5 million properties in Florida may be damaged by Irma’s winds.
— NWS Key West (@NWSKeyWest) September 9, 2017
Total losses from Katrina reached $160 billion in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005.
“Wind damage is totally going to throw a wrench into the insurance industry,” Watson said. “You are talking about companies failing.”
About 9 million of Florida’s 20.6 million people may lose power, according to the state’s largest utility Florida Power & Light Co. Irma may also curb natural gas demand in one of the largest U.S. markets and threaten $1.2 billion worth of crops.
Officials were taking steps to ensure adequate supplies of gasoline after residents filled up cars, boats and back-up generators ahead of the storm. “We’re bringing in as much supply of refined fuel as possible,” White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said Friday.
Irma was 245 miles south-southeast of Miami and is forecast to strike the Florida Keys on Sunday morning and the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon, the hurricane center said.
The hurricane comes just two weeks after Harvey smashed ashore in Texas, knocking offline almost a quarter of U.S. oil refining capacity and causing widespread power outages and flooding.
In other storm news:
- One of the biggest evacuations of aircraft on record is under way as owners move planes out of Irma’s path.
- Comcast Corp.’s Universal Parks and Resorts division closed three theme parks in Orlando, and Walt Disney World Resort will shut early Saturday.
- The storm is threatening the two biggest fuel-sucking ports in Florida: Tampa and Port Everglades.
- Gasoline demand surged in Florida ahead of the storm, and the U.S. is allowing foreign flag vessels to bring in fuel to help with shortages