Fuel shortage, traffic jams as Floridians flee before Hurricane Irma strikes
Hurricane Irma due to strike south Florida today after killing 14 in Caribbean
SARASOTA, US: With Hurricane Irma aiming squarely at Florida, up to a million people are being told to evacuate the coastal areas in the Sunshine State and neighbouring Georgia on Thursday, amid worries that fuel shortages and traffic bottlenecks could thwart the exodus.
Irma, about the size of France, has smashed a string of Caribbean islands as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, killing 14 people.
Winds dipped on Thursday to 265kmh as Irma soaked the northern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti and brought hurricane-force winds to the Turks and Caicos Islands.
It remains a Category 5 storm, the highest designation by the National Hurricane Centre.
In Florida, home to more than 20 million people, Governor Rick Scott warned residents on both coasts to be ready to get out before Irma strikes south Florida late today.
Experts hope to avoid mass casualties by ushering residents out of the riskiest areas, in what could be the largest US evacuation since Hurricane Rita forced 3.7 million people to leave Texas and Louisiana in 2005.
Already 31,000 people have fled the Florida Keys chain of islands.
"Look at the size of this storm. It is huge. It is wider than our entire state," he said, warning of 3m of storm surge, which is enough to reach the roofs of many homes.
"We cannot save you once the storm starts."
More than 650,000 people in Miami-Dade County are being told to leave, after Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez expanded the mandatory evacuation zone further inland along the south-east Florida coast.
In another sign of the growing alarm about the damage Irma could wreak, the authorities in the state of Georgia also ordered the mandatory evacuation of the city of Savannah and other coastal areas, affecting more than 300,000.
The US Air Force is also not taking any chances, moving dozens of aircraft from bases in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia out of Irma's path.
In Miami Beach, people were filling the trunks of their cars with water and other provisions and sharing contact information with neighbours as they prepared to hit the road.
US President Donald Trump voiced serious concern as Irma ripped across the Caribbean toward the US, saying: "We are with the people of Florida."
The only way to drive out of the Florida peninsula is northward, and motorists leaving Miami have found many petrol stations cordoned off with yellow tape, signalling they are closed due to lack of fuel.
The Governor said he has asked the White House and Federal Emergency Management Agency to waive rules and regulations to get as much fuel as possible into the state and ports.
Traffic piled up on main highways, as cars heading north bottle-necked near the larger cities, including Miami, Fort Myers and Sarasota.
Elderly residents, those in small hospitals and people living in mobile homes were among the first to be evacuated.
The Governor also said utility giant Florida Power and Light will close its Turkey Point power plant, where twin nuclear reactors operate, "at some point". - WIRE SERVICES