Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday continued warning all Floridians to pay attention to record-setting Hurricane Irma marching through the Caribbean toward a weekend encounter with the Sunshine State.
Scott said Irma could be bigger than Hurricane Andrew, a devastating Category 5 hurricane that 25 years ago raced across South Florida with 165 mph winds, destroying more than 63,500 homes, leaving $26.5 billion in damages and 65 people dead.
“Here's what we didn't have in Andrew: We didn't have this amount of wind; Andrew was not as big as this is,” Scott said Wednesday morning at the Monroe County Emergency Management center in Marathon. “This is 185 mph winds and they're tracking it even higher than that at some times.”
Jane Hollingsworth, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, said the storm, which is starting to impact the U.S. Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands as it travels along the northern shore of Puerto Rico, agreed with Scott's Andrew comparison.
“This is a bigger storm and it's actually stronger, so the potential impacts are at least as great as Andrew and possibly, depending upon the track, that could impact a much broader and larger area,” Hollingsworth said.
And with the speed of Irma —- currently moving west-northwest at 16 mph —- it could retain major storm characteristics if it travels across Central Florida and into North Florida, Hollingsworth said.
“The current estimate is that if it does hit southern Florida and then it starts to track up, either up the spine of Florida or one side or the other, is that it would start to weaken, but probably not until it gets to central-northern Florida, to potentially a Category 3,” Hollingsworth said. “It's not going to be weakening extremely rapidly.”
Hollingsworth said Irma is expected to start impacting the Florida Keys on Friday, with the eye arriving as early as Saturday morning before the system moves north.
Residents throughout the state have spent the past two days stocking up on water, gasoline and other supplies.
James Miller, communications director for the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said the state has had a number of “sporadic shortages” as people rush out to fuel up, but a seven-day supply of gas is readily available.
“There is plenty of gas, we're just trying to get it there as quickly as possible and as safely as possible prior to the storm coming,” Miller said.
Miller acknowledged that due to the path of the storm, and the demand for gas statewide, establishing post-storm staging areas is different from other hurricanes and tropical systems.
“What is really unique about this storm in particular is that because there is so much uncertainty about where it's going to go, you have people basically in all 67 counties rushing out to get gasoline and rushing out to get food and water,” Miller said. “You can't just center all your resources on one area of the state. You're kind of spread out and it's making it a little more difficult.”
Scott, who on Monday declared a state of emergency throughout Florida, activated an additional 900 members of the Florida National Guard on Wednesday, bringing the number to 1,000. Another 6,000 National Guard members are to report to duty on Friday.
Scott asked Tuesday for pre-landfall assistance from the federal government, ordered state offices closed on Friday, and called for tolls to be lifted statewide to help evacuees.