Roads became clogged and fuel supplies strained as more than 1 million people were told to find shelter inland, upstate or in neighboring states in advance of massive Hurricane Irma, which will blanket most of Florida this weekend.
Time is fleeting for those who plan to evacuate further than local shelters before the winds and rains of the ominously strong storm are felt Saturday in South Florida before traveling up the peninsula Sunday and Monday.
As an indication of the expected broad damage from Irma, Florida Power & Light, the largest electric utility in the state, said about 4.1 million of its customers could lose electricity at some point in the coming days.
“Our state has never seen anything like this before. The majority of Florida will have a major hurricane impact with deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds,” Gov. Rick Scott warned Friday while at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.
“If you've been ordered to evacuate, leave now. Not tonight, not in an hour, now,” Scott added. “If you live in an evacuation zone in Lee, Hendry, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe or Collier county, you need to be on the road by midnight or find shelter to avoid life-threatening weather.”
The directive is intended to complete evacuations before winds start, so vehicles are not on the roads when the storm hits, he said.
Shelters are available in every county except Monroe, Scott said.
At 5 p.m. Friday, Irma was about 155 miles southeast of Miami as it slowed from what had been a rapid march through the Caribbean to a 12 mph pace toward the west, carrying 155 mph maximum sustained winds around the eye. The system was expected to again strengthen.
A hurricane warning —- which signifies impacts expected within 36 hours —- is in effect from Sebastian Inlet south around the Peninsula to Anna Maria Island and includes the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.
A hurricane watch is in place from north of Sebastian Inlet to the Flagler/Volusia County line and Anna Maria Island north to the Suwannee River on the western side of the state.
The National Hurricane Center forecast 8 to 15 inches of rain for the Florida Keys and much of the peninsula through Tuesday, with the threat of flash floods in some areas.
FPL, which has pre-positioned more than 13,500 recovery workers from its staff and other states at 20 staging areas, projected that about 4.1 million customers could lose power at some point as a result of Hurricane Irma. The company serves 10 million people through nearly 5 million customer accounts across about half state.
"With a storm of this magnitude, there will be widespread destruction throughout our service territory, and most of it will be in the most densely populated areas of South Florida,” FPL President and Chief Executive Officer Eric Silagy said in a prepared statement. “This likely will be one of the most challenging restorations that our country has ever seen. However, this is what we train and plan for year-round, and we are fully committed to being there for our customers when they need us the most. For us, this is personal, given we too live and work here."
By comparison, Hurricane Matthew, a powerful storm that pounded the East Coast last October, knocked out power to about 1.2 million FPL customers. While FPL service was lost as far south as Miami-Dade County, counties to the north such as St. Johns, Flagler, Volusia and Brevard experienced the brunt of Matthew, which did not make landfall in Florida.
The company plans to conduct a gradual shutdown of its two nuclear power plants —- St. Lucie and Miami-Dade County's Turkey Point —- before the hurricane-force winds arrive.
"It's important for our customers to know that our Turkey Point and St. Lucie nuclear power plants are two of the strongest structures in the world with the main portions of the plant encased in a 6-foot thick cement structure reinforced by steel,” Silagy said. “In addition, these nuclear facilities have multiple safety systems and layers of redundancy, and they are elevated well above sea level —- approximately 20 feet —- to protect against flooding and extreme storm surges.”
Scott, traveling the state the past couple of days, has repeatedly advised coastal residents to evacuate immediately upon being told to do so, with a focus on heading inland. He also ordered the mandatory evacuation of seven communities —- South Bay, Lake Harbor, Pahokee, Moore Haven, Clewiston, Belle Glade and Canal Point —- south of Lake Okeechobee.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers anticipates excessive winds will push waters from the lake over the Herbert Hoover Dike. The dike itself isn't expected to be at risk, Scott said in relaying information from the Army Corps.
Public schools, state college and universities and state government offices were shut down across Florida on Friday and will remain closed Monday.
By the end of Friday 7,000 members of the state National Guard will have been activated.
Despite the state lifting restrictions and providing law-enforcement escorts for gas trucks on state roads, the supply of fuel —- already in heavy demand —- is expected to slow Saturday in South Florida after Port Everglades is shut down for safety reasons Friday night.
The entire Florida Highway Patrol, approximately 1,700 troopers, has been placed on 12-hour shifts, with the primary mission assisting emergency preparedness and response.
Tolls have been lifted statewide, and Florida's highway Welcome Centers near the state borders have been converted to provide information to people seeking safe places to go.
“Evacuations are not meant to be convenient, they are meant to be safe,” Scott said.
To help speed traffic flow, the state allowed the left shoulder to be used in areas as a lane along Interstate 75 from Wildwood —- the Florida Turnpike interchange —- north to U.S 90 in Columbia County.
Early Friday, Scott retweeted Miami rapper Pitball, a former paid ambassador for the state's tourism industry, who stated, “Florida residents & visitors, please be diligent. Evacuate where needed. Be safe. We will be back bigger, better, stronger.”
Later in the day he tweeted a message from former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow that said, “@FLGovScott is asking for more volunteers. LET'S RALLY, Florida! Go here: volunteerflorida.org.”
After announcing Thursday that insurance companies are prepared to meet Floridians' needs after Hurricane Irma, state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis advised residents on Friday to keep copies of their policies and to document their personal property to effectively get claims processed.
“If you have a smart phone, go take pictures inside your house of your personal belongings, or a video,” Patronis said Friday. “Then, email it to yourself. Put it somewhere virtually, so you can have a copy of it.”