MIAMI — Authorities are begging residents of the Florida Keys to evacuate in the few remaining hours before Hurricane Irma’s arrival, warning that storm surges and high winds pose a particular risk to the string of low-lying sandbar islands tailing off Florida’s southern tip.
Leaders turned to Gov. Rick Scott for help in getting the message out to those residents who remain on the islands.
Irma’s winds will hit the Keys first on Saturday, and officials worry there won’t be enough time for residents to make what can be a three-hour-plus drive from Key West to the mainland. Authorities have opened four storm refuges — they aren’t calling them shelters — for people who won’t leave the Keys.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office on Friday night moved 460 prisoners from the detention center to an undisclosed location.
“We’re very concerned about the potential loss of life,” said Cammy Clark, a county spokeswoman. “Storm surges could kill a lot of people because there’s nowhere to go.”
Scott made a late night plea Friday to residents who haven’t left despite a mandatory evacuation order issued Wednesday. Such evacuation orders are rarely enforced, however, and the Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to questions about whether deputies might go door-to-door.
“I’ve got one last plea to everybody in the Florida Keys,” Scott said in an interview on The Weather Channel just after 10 p.m. “Just think about it. You’re going to have 155 mph winds. You have a potential 9-plus feet of storm surge. It’s going to be very difficult to survive this.
“I care about everybody in the Keys. Your families care about you. I’m asking you to get out,” he said. “You don’t have much time to go. There’s not going to be anybody that can save you. There might not even be anybody that can save you after the storm. We’ve already evacuated all the hospitals.
“So I’m asking every resident of the southern Florida Keys to leave and go to safety and do it right now. Do not wait.”
Dozens of Key West residents told USA TODAY this week they planned to ride the storm out in their homes or on boats, the way some of them rode out Andrew 25 years ago. Other residents who refused to leave, including several homeless people, were skeptical that anywhere else would be safer and hoped the storm would move east and spare the Keys its full force.
Experts say Irma could devastate the Keys with a 5-10 foot storm surge that could roll across the low-lying islands.
Clark said Friday’s forecast suggests the storm’s eye will hit Key West, and that prompted some holdouts to reconsider.
“There’s a steady stream of cars headed north,” Clark said.
Officials say residents should evacuate before the weather turns bad, but the past several days on the Keys have been beautiful, with abundant sunshine and few clouds.
That’s set to change dramatically by Saturday night.
County officials on Saturday morning will decide whether to move their emergency command center from centrally located Marathon Key to Key West, or even off the islands entirely. Highway patrol officers plan to pull out of the area once winds reach 40 mph.
The greatest fear is that Irma will destroy state infrastructure, including the series of bridges that connect the islands that make up the Keys and offer only one way out.
“Just think about the Keys for a second,” Scott said. “If we lose one bridge, everything south of the bridge, everybody’s going to be stranded. It’s going to take us a while to get back in there to try to provide services.”