RALEIGH/FORT MYERS/MIAMI – Packing 130-mph winds, Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity to more than 1 million Florida homes and businesses on Sunday as it headed towards the state’s Gulf Coast, threatening potentially catastrophic flooding.
After wreaking havoc in the Caribbean, the deadly storm was located about 80 miles south-southeast of Naples on a course for the state’s western coast. Storm surges – water driven ashore by the winds – of up to 15 feet were possible, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“I am very concerned about the west coast,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told “Fox News Sunday.” The coastline is home to cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Irma prompted one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history and many of the residents are landing in N.C. State officials and the American Red Cross have opened a fifth shelter in N.C. to assist evacuees. The fifth opened in Greensboro on Soabar Street at noon on Sunday.
“It looks like North Carolina will be lucky to not have serious impacts from Irma, but we are prepared to assist evacuees from other states who need a safe place to wait out the storm,” said N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry. “These shelters will provide temporary resources for people and their pets to rest.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation is using fixed and mobile electronic message boards along highways to direct evacuees to the shelters, and has 26 IMAP trucks patrolling highways to assist evacuees as they pass through the state. The ReadyNC app also contains a listing of open shelters and provides driving directions. The North Carolina National Guard will open three staging areas on Sunday to support local authorities’ response to Hurricane Irma. About 315 soldiers and airmen are being deployed to centers in Asheville, Greensboro and Charlotte.
FEMA has also launched an Irma Rumor Control website to answer questions and head off incorrect information travelling through communities and among evacuees.
Irma is expected to cause billions of dollars in damage to the third-most-populous U.S. state, a major tourism hub with an economy comprising about 5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. At least 1.4 million Florida homes and businesses had lost power as the storm pummeled the southern part of the state, according to Florida Power & Light. FPL said it would have to completely rebuild part of its system, which would take weeks not days.
Irma, at one point one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, has now passed over the lower Florida Keys on its way to the mainland, with the NHC forecasting that its center eye will move near or over the state’s west coast later on Sunday. The extent of the damage Irmacaused on the Keys was not immediately clear.
Irma, which killed at least 22 people as it tore through Caribbean islands toward Florida, has already claimed at least one life in the state. Emergency responders in the Florida Keys said they pulled a man’s body from his pickup truck, which had crashed into a tree in high winds.
The storm winds downed a construction crane, trees and signs and shook tall buildings in Miami, which was about 100 miles (160 km) from Irma‘s core.
“We’re going to get 100-mile-an hour winds,” said Bob Korosec, an 83-year-old retiree who planned to ride out the storm with his wife in their St. Petersburg home. “We picked up all the stuff outside that could be a missile into our house. I just hope it doesn’t blow off our roof.”
Irma is now a Category 4 storm, the second-highest designation on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
One woman in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood delivered her own baby, with medical personnel coaching her on the phone because emergency responders were not able to reach her, the city of Miami said on Twitter. The two are now at the hospital, it said.
About 6.5 million people, or about a third of the state’s population, had been ordered to evacuate.
But some people decided to ride out the storm in their homes. Midway up the state’s Gulf Coast in Clearwater, Sarah Griffin said she planned to hunker down in a closet in her boarded-up concrete house.
“You’ve just got to have plenty of beer, Captain Morgan, vodka, (and) you’ll get through,” said Griffin, 52.
The NHC has put out a hurricane warning and a tropical storm warning stretching through almost all of Florida into Georgia and South Carolina, home to more than 20 million people.
Irma comes just days after Hurricane Harvey dumped record-setting rain in Texas, causing unprecedented flooding, killing at least 60 people and leaving an estimated $180 billion in property damage in its wake. Almost three months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through November.
Officials at N.C. Department of Emergency Management say the state’s five shelters are all capable of taking pets. The shelters are located across the state at the following locations.
Gaston County: Gaston County Resource Center, 1303 Dallas Cherryville Hwy., Dallas 28034
Guilford County: City of Greensboro Shelter, 2305 Soabar St., Greensboro 27406
Henderson County: East Henderson High School, 110 Upward Road, Hendersonville 28726
Johnston County: Johnston County Industries, 912 N. Brightleaf Blvd., Smithfield 27577
Mecklenburg County: (OLD) J.M. Alexander Middle School, 12010 Hambright Road, Huntersville 28078
Reuters News Service contributed to this report.