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Before the Storm
South Florida Braces for the Worst as "Nuclear Hurricane" Nears
After tearing through the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma heads toward Florida
By Evan Halper and Laura King | Los Angeles Times | Tribune News Service | September 7, 2017
MIAMI — Hurricane Irma took aim at South Florida on Thursday, threatening millions with historic winds, huge storm surges and unrelenting rainfall as it left behind a trail of still-uncharted devastation in the Caribbean and a death toll that climbed to at least 13.
As the monster Category 5 storm tracked west-northwest with 175-mph winds, the caprices of wind and water saved impoverished Haiti and the Dominican Republic from a direct hit. But Irma bore down late Thursday on other Caribbean targets: the low-lying Turks and Caicos, and parts of the Bahamas.
Meanwhile, the peril to the U.S. mainland grew.
"It has become more likely that Irma will make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state," the National Hurricane Center said.
With South Florida under a hurricane watch, Philip Levine, the mayor of vulnerable barrier-island Miami Beach, called Irma a "nuclear hurricane." Irma's leading edge was expected to reach Florida as soon as Saturday, and Gov. Rick Scott spoke of a "catastrophic storm that our state has never seen."
The hurricane has left a string of small, devastated Caribbean islands counting their dead and struggling to restore links to the outside world. Chaotic conditions hampered efforts to compile a fatality toll, which officials said would probably grow.
The deaths included three people in the U.S. Virgin Islands and three more in Puerto Rico, their respective governors said, and the Netherlands government confirmed a fatality in St. Maarten, the shattered Dutch side of the island it shares with St. Martin, a French territory. French officials, however, revised downward from eight to four the number of people confirmed dead on the French side.
As the storm passed Puerto Rico, it dealt the U.S. territory what was in meteorological terms a glancing blow, but one that landed like a stunning punch, exacerbated by already faltering infrastructure. The governor, Ricardo Rossello, reported that a million people were left without power, and the National Weather Service in San Juan warned of flash-flooding danger from swollen rivers.
Irma's howling winds weakened slightly to 175 mph as the eye passed to the north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But even a sideswipe by such an intense storm carried devastating power. Hispaniola, the island the two countries share, was lashed by gales and torrential rains.
In the north of Haiti, where a hurricane last year killed some 900 people, many learned of government evacuation orders only from neighbors or relatives. Frightened people in the country's north cut branches from trees to try to shore up roofs, said Mishelle Mitchell of the humanitarian group World Vision, who was in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
In South Florida, home to some 6 million people, flight from the mighty storm that was bearing down turned chaotic at times, with the state's two main south-north arteries clogged with traffic and gasoline in short supply. Florida Highway Patrol troopers were trying to keep vehicles moving, towing disabled cars left by the roadside and escorting fuel trucks.
Florida lore is full of die-hards who ride out hurricanes, and defying a storm's fury is romanticized in films like the 1948 noir classic "Key Largo." But Scott, in a televised public briefing, pleaded with any holdouts in evacuation zones, especially in the Florida Keys, to obey orders to depart.
"Leave. Get out," the governor said, addressing those who had been told to go. "We can't save you once the storm starts."
The Keys, where a mandatory evacuation order was in place, were emptying, with 31,000 people having departed as of Thursday morning, Scott said. An advisory evacuation was in place in Miami-Dade, the state's most populous county, and the order was mandatory in lowlying areas.
The expanded evacuation zone, now encompassing about 700,000 people, covers downtown Miami and other parts of the city, plus southern parts of Miami-Dade County.
It also included Homestead, Coral Gables, South Miami, Miami Shores and North Miami Beach, authorities said.
In Miami Beach, jogger Andrea Ratkovic, 51, was preparing to head home to Oklahoma after the storm scrapped a planned trip to Barbados. First, though, she took a break from her run to help a sandbag-filling crew.
She could sympathize with what Floridians faced, she said, after living through tornadoes back home with terrifyingly high winds.
"There is little you can do to prepare for those," Ratkovic said. "You just have to run like a bug underground."
While the storm's track remained uncertain, a widening area braced for its effects. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide emergency declaration on Thursday, a day after South Carolina did so.
President Donald Trump was briefed in the Oval Office about storm preparations and Irma's projected path. Earlier, he tweeted a reminder to those in Irma's path to "be careful, be safe," as the storm approaches.
As Thursday dawned, daylight harshly illuminated the storm's destructive rampage through the hardest-hit eastern Caribbean islands, many with Colonial-era links to Western European countries.
Boats were tossed onto land. Electrical wires dangled. Streets had turned to rivers. Structures were splintered, with doors and shutters leaning at crazy angles.
"It's an enormous disaster — 95 percent of the island is destroyed," Daniel Gibbs, chairman of a local council on the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, told Radio Caribbean International.
France's interior minister, Gerard Collomb, told French radio that more dead and injured were likely to be discovered as authorities "explore all the shores."
A Dutch warship docked at St. Maarten, the Netherlands' military said. The Dutch interior minister, Ronald Plasterk, who confirmed at least one death, said there could be more casualties.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte earlier said preliminary assessments had painted a bleak picture of the storm's aftermath.
"There is no power, no gasoline, no running water," Dutch media quoted him as saying. "Houses are underwater, cars are floating in the streets, and people are sitting in the dark, in ruined houses, cut off from the outside world."
The independent island nation of Antigua and Barbuda reported overwhelming destruction on Barbuda, with 90 percent of buildings damaged or destroyed and one death reported. Prime Minister Gaston Browne, speaking to the BBC, called it "total carnage."
Staff writer Halper reported from Miami and staff writer King from Washington. Special correspondent Les Neuhaus contributed from Homestead, Fla.
Miami Beach Battens Down
Tales of sandbags, lifeguards and a monkey
By Evan Halper | Tribune Washington Bureau | Tribune News Service | September 7, 2017
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Genaro Dacosta has a monkey on his back, at least sometimes. It's a small pet marmoset that may force him to ride out Hurricane Irma, now lumbering toward his home on Miami Beach.
Dacosta wants to evacuate, as the government has ordered and as most of his neighbors were doing Thursday. He's been frantically calling authorities in Tallahassee, the state capital, to get permission to bring the monkey to a shelter. So far, no luck. Hotels aren't keen on allowing monkeys, either.
So on Thursday morning, Dacosta found himself, with his family, loading sandbags into the back of his pickup. They are among a band of residents — call them stubborn, or desperate — who are going to hunker down at home, in the path of an extremely dangerous storm, and hope for the best.
"There is nothing I could do," he said. "I have what they call a 'wild animal.' I won't leave him."
Jitters aside, Miami Beach was largely calm before the storm, which is expected to hit Florida this weekend. Downtown had not yet been shuttered. Cafes were still open. Businesses were open, if slow. Tourists were getting into cabs and Ubers to leave.
Locals were quietly making preparations — either to leave or to stay.
Lifeguards used trucks to tow lifeguard stations back into the brush, in hopes they don't float away. Two sandbag stations had lines — one much longer than the other — that were calm and orderly. Volunteers and city workers sweated profusely as they shoveled sand into white bags, the sun beating down.
Andrea Ratkovic, a very fit Oklahoman, had been taking one last 6-mile run before decamping with the rest of the tourist masses when she saw sandbags getting filled. She decided to stop and lend a hand.
Ratkovic has seen her share of disasters. She lives 10 miles from where one of the most intense tornadoes ever recorded touched down. Those winds were 316 mph, she said. "There is little you can do to prepare for those," she said. "You just have to run like a bug underground."
At least with a hurricane, you have some advance notice. So Ratkovic, 51, did what she could to help out. "Everybody lives somewhere where stuff happens," she said.
Her trip, with a friend, was supposed to take them to Barbados. They canceled that and diverted to Miami Beach, hoping for the best. Now they are just heading home. "I think we are getting out by the skin of our teeth," Ratkovic said.
In line for sandbags, a few cars behind Dacosta, was Charlie Garcia, who knows how much damage a hurricane can do. He was 10 when his family decided not to evacuate for Hurricane Andrew. Their house was leveled.
"It was total devastation," he said. Nevertheless, Garcia is again staying put.
"This is my home, man," he said. "Where else am I going to go? Everywhere is going to get hit."
He figured he is as safe in the high-rise where he now lives, across the street from the water, as anywhere else in South Florida. His building asked residents to collect sandbags, so that is what he was doing.
Garcia had just gotten back from the Florida Keys, where he has another home in the city of Marathon. He is expecting the worst there after seeing images of what Irma did farther south in the Caribbean.
"If it hits like that in the Keys, it will be horrible," he said.
Patience in Short Supply as Desperation Sets in Among South Florida Residents
Floridians find long lines at shelters as they flee Hurricane Irma
By Evan Halper and Les Neuhaus | Tribune Washington Bureau | Tribune News Service | September 8, 2017
MIAMI — Tiffany Ceballos and her family arrived at the iron gate in front of Miami Coral Park Senior High School on Friday seeking refuge in the sturdy suburban edifice from the anticipated furies of Hurricane Irma.
But instead of being shown to a cot and a food line, they were shown the door by a National Guard soldier in camo fatigues.
The fact that Ceballos' sister had spent three hours waiting in line on behalf of the family of six, all of them fleeing Little Havana, meant nothing, they were told. Only those who were there since first thing in the morning were getting in.
"We didn't find out about the evacuation order until this morning," Ceballos protested. "We needed to pack up. We didn't expect it to fill so quick ..." As she waited for instructions on where else her family could go, Ceballos looked exasperated — and in that, she was not alone.
With hundreds of thousands of people streaming out of their homes for safety, tensions were flaring in the final, unsettling hours before Irma crashes into the city.
Life's necessities are getting increasingly harder to come by, and in some cases, they are unavailable. Displaced Miamians are losing patience with shelters that have surged over capacity, fights are breaking out at parched gas stations, and the airport was a cauldron of frayed nerves in the hours before it was to close Friday evening.
"It is impossible to get out," said Davide Corradi, who had been booked on a weekend flight back home to Milan, Italy. "I tried to change my ticket. I couldn't." With so many hotels under evacuation, he and his wife were among thousands unable to find a room.
"So we stay here," he said, pointing to a row of chairs in the airport terminal where he expected to stay until his flight finally leaves early next week.
Many stranded passengers had grueling tales of being placed on interminable hold with ticket agents, quoted exorbitant prices, and spending hours trying to purchase seats on travel websites — only to learn later that the seats did not exist.
Whether one paid $100 or $1,000 to travel just a few states away appeared to be a matter of luck. Rowan Black and his friends, all from Germany, decided to chance it and showed up at the airport at 3 a.m., hoping to find a flight anywhere out of Miami.
When the Delta ticket office finally opened up three hours later, they scored seats to Atlanta for $116. "They told us those same tickets would have been $1,000 if we bought them a day earlier," said Black, as one of his exhausted friends snoozed in a nearby terminal chair.
They probably benefited from a decision by several major airlines to cap ticket prices and temporarily suspend the algorithms they typically use that increase the prices of tickets purchased at the last minute to as high as fliers might pay. But there ultimately were just not enough tickets to go around.
Passengers stranded at the airport eventually were bused to shelters, but in many cases there wasn't enough room there either.
"I'm not sure where to go right now," said Angelica Camacho, 30, who rode her bike to the North Miami Beach High School shelter, only to be turned away. Its 1,000 beds were full by Friday afternoon. Dozens of people stood outside, confused about what shelter might take them. "I'm trying to find one still with room," she said. "It's scary."
Miami-Dade County officials announced more shelter openings on Friday, bringing the number to 45.
Meanwhile, police arranged to escort gas tankers to help ease tensions among motorists waiting angrily at filling stations. The wait exceeded an hour at many stations — if they even had gas. Horn blaring, shouting and some shoving broke out throughout the city.
"It's tough because everyone is trying to leave now," said Tanzim Adwa, 30, who was staffing the 24-hour Marathon gas station in North Miami on Friday. Waiting motorists stretched around the block, some of them periodically leaning on their horns. "Some guys were yelling at each other this morning because one thought it was his turn," Adwa said.
Many gas stations closed altogether as the city emptied out, with normally bustling streets devoid of activity. The uneasiness that settled over Miami was particularly alarming to stranded tourists. "My family in France tried to find us tickets to get out, but it was too late," said Sophie Amsellam, who was at the North Miami shelter with her daughters, ages 10 and 15. "I just want a safe place for my kids."
Police also had to show up in lots of places where they are not usually needed, to keep the order as supplies dwindled and those hoping to get what was left on the shelves sharpened their elbows.
Ten officers responded to a Home Depot near downtown, just outside the evacuation zone.
About 500 people were waiting in line to get plywood. The line was buzzing with complaints about alleged price gouging at a different hardware store down the street, which was charging $45 a sheet.
By mid-morning Home Depot's supply of plywood was gone. Customers stayed in line anyway, hopeful another truck would soon arrive.
Back at the airport, Prasoon Mohan and his wife, Rasmi Roy, both from Miami, breathed a sigh of relief when he finally secured their boarding passes. They were on the last flight out of town being offered by American Airlines.
"It's hard to get anywhere," Roy said.
Where were they willing to go? Just about anywhere they knew people. It took them days to secure a reservation, but they finally got tickets — to Milwaukee, the agent told them.
Fine. It wasn't Miami.
Excerpted from "Irma"
Copyright © 2017 Triumph Books LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Before the Storm,
2. Irma Hits Florida,
3. The Aftermath,
4. Pain in Puerto Rico,