Florida braces up for Amar

  • MIAMI — This could be The Big One, again, and everyone knows it, and if people here are getting a bit frantic, that might not be an irrational response. Hurricane Irma is about as big as a tropical cyclone can possibly get, and the latest computer models show it aimed at South Florida as if following directions by GPS. There are more than 6 million people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, all concentrated between the beach and the swamps. Many have been streaming north on Interstate 95 or Florida’s Turnpike, and gas stations have plastic bags on the pumps. The region’s airports were slammed, and it had become difficult to score a seat on any airplane, going anywhere. “I’m nervous, and I never get nervous in storms,” said Jane Llewellyn, a rental car sales agent at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and a resident of Miami Beach. She said Irma seemed more “aggressive” than Andrew in 1992: “It’s just so massive and it’s just so fast, and it’s just so hot here. It’s going to get worse.” Irma is an extremely dangerous Category 5 hurricane that had sustained winds of 185 mph as it ripped through the Caribbean on Wednesday, battering the northern Lesser Antilles and Virgin Islands, in some cases leaving behind massive destruction, such as on the small island of Barbuda. The storm next headed toward Puerto Rico, where some residents are preparing to be without electricity for as long as six months. Although the storm’s center passed north of Puerto Rico itself, the hurricane still delivered lashing rain bands, damaging winds and warnings of flash flooding. On Wednesday, Irma hit Barbuda in the Leeward Islands, territories and commonwealths stretching southeast from Puerto Rico. A weather station recorded sustained winds of 118 mph and a wind gust to 155 mph before the instrument failed, according to the National Hurricane Center, which called the storm’s conditions “life-threatening.” This hurricane’s 185-mph maximum sustained winds are the strongest recorded for a landfalling hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, tied with the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane. The National Hurricane Center said on Wednesday evening that Irma remains powerful and that Puerto Rico should expect hurricane conditions through Wednesday night and could see as much as 20 inches of rain in some places. The storm is projected to pass by the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba in the next two days before it could make landfall somewhere in South Florida on Sunday, though intense winds could begin long before that. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, people in the Hato Rey neighborhood prepared for the storm under unusually calm, cool weather Wednesday that gave way to a light drizzle. People expect to lose power, which is nothing unusual for the neighborhood, where power often goes out for a few hours after a heavy rainstorm. The power went out at about 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday. Even though her house was boarded up, Rita Hernandez could hear the singsong calls of “Yucca! Platanos!” from a pregonero — a roaming fruit and vegetable vendor — making what was probably his last run before the storm truly arrived. With the storm still days away, it was relatively unusual for the people of South Florida to go into full-on storm preparation mode. But this is a scary hurricane at a moment when anyone paying attention to the news understands what a big storm can do.