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Hurricane Irma: Florida braces for impact

Lazaro Aleman: Greene Publishing, Inc.

As of Thursday morning, Florida was in a high state of alert, with Gov. Rick Scott warning Floridians that Hurricane Irma could wreck more havoc than Hurricane Andrew, a Category-5 storm that devastated the Greater Miami area in 1992.

As of late Wednesday, Scott had declared a statewide emergency, suspended road tolls across the Sunshine State to facilitate evacuations, activated the National Guard, and ordered state offices closed on Friday.

At the same time, the Red Cross had dispatched 1,000 volunteers to the state; the Army Corps of Engineers had started letting water out of Lake Okeechobee; the Florida Emergency Operation Center had gone into its most heightened state; and highways and roads were already becoming congested with residents and tourists fleeing South Florida and the Keys.

Irma, meanwhile, was still far out in the Atlantic, its exact path still uncertain. State and emergency preparedness officials, however, were taking no chances with the storm, which the National Hurricane Center (NHC) is calling “potentially catastrophic.”

"I want everybody to understand the importance of this,” Scott said Tuesday on ABC News’ ‘Good Morning America.’ “This is bigger than Andrew. This could be worse."

Uncertainty about the Category-5 storm’s path is exacerbating the situation, with models variously projecting Irma going up along the state’s east coast, skirting the bottom tip of the peninsula, going up the center of the state, or going into the Gulf and hitting the west coast or the panhandle.

"We don't know exactly where this is going to hit," Scott said on ABC. "It sure looks like it's going to bear down right in the middle of Florida."

Irma’s 185 mph maximum sustained winds, according to the Washington Post, “are the strongest recorded for a landfalling hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, tied with the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane.” A Category-5 storm that hit the Keys on Labor Day, the 1935 hurricane destroyed buildings, infrastructure and caused an estimated 408 deaths.

As of 5 a.m. Thursday, according to the NHC, Irma remained a Category-5 storm, with its eye moving west northwestward off the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. The storm track map showed the storm set to strike Florida on Sunday, and hit again near the Georgia/South Carolina border on Monday. A glimmer of hope is that the NHC was also reporting on Thursday morning that the projected cone, which contains the probable path of the storm centre, had shifted slightly to the east, “raising hopes that Irma might change path and stay offshore.”

Reports put Irma’s width at 400 miles and its sustained winds at 185 mph, with gusts exceeding 200 mph.

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