What's going on with Hurricane Irma?
Irma remained a Category 5 storm Wednesday with sustained wind speeds of at least 185 mph, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. It passed over the island Barbuda in the eastern Caribbean Sea around 2 a.m. Wednesday, deadening communication lines there and ripping off the roof of the island's police station, sending officers for cover in the fire house.
The storm continued trucking northwest at 16 mph Wednesday afternoon, grazing the northern coast of Puerto Rico, which was under a hurricane warning. Warnings were also issued for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Hispanola and the southeastern Bahamas.
Irma was expected to continue on its current track, with a fluctuating wind speed but remaining a Category 4 or 5, before making a northerly turn starting Saturday morning toward Florida.
Models on Wednesday showed Irma likely to make landfall near Miami, remaining a powerful hurricane before reentering the Atlantic Ocean and threatening the Georgia and the Carolinas. That path may change.
Nevertheless, the track sent Floridians into a frenzy Wednesday, with evacuations ordered and schools preparing to close.
"Do not sit and wait for this storm to come," Gov. Rick Scott warned those in its path on Wednesday in a tweet. "Remember, we can rebuild your home — not your life."
Where have evacuations been ordered?
Officials in Broward County issued a mandatory evacuation for parts of the county Wednesday, ordering coastal residents to begin leaving Thursday midday, according to the Miami Herald.
In Monroe County, home of the Florida Keys, officials ordered tourists to leave by Wednesday, and gave residents until Thursday to go.
Miami-Dade officials Wednesday issued an evacuation order for more than 100,000 residents of barrier islands, Miami Beach and low-lying mainland areas, the Miami Herald reported.
Locally, officials are taking a wait-and-see approach. Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando leaders all said they were monitoring the storm but had yet to issue go orders.
When are local public schools closed?
Pinellas: Closed Thursday and Friday.
Hillsborough: Closed Thursday and Friday.
Pasco: Closed Friday.
Hernando: Closed Thursday and Friday.
How is Irma affecting local colleges and universities?
Eckerd College, surrounded on three sides by water, closed its campus Wednesday and worked with students to help them with travel plans.
The University of South Florida System announced it will close from Thursday through Sunday. Classes at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee were cancelled for Monday as well. Residence halls and dining facilities at USF Tampa and USF St. Petersburg will remain open.
All campuses of St. Petersburg College, Hillsborough Community College, Pasco Hernando State College and the University of Tampa will close Thursday through Sunday. However, UT will keep essential campus services operating, including residence halls and dining facilities, unless an evacuation is required. Updates will be provided on UT's weather site.
Stetson University College of Law will close all campuses from noon Thursday through Sunday.
Will the show still go on?
Irma has canceled or postponed a number of upcoming activities.
The Bryan Adams show on Sunday in Clearwater has been postponed, so has the comedy show on Friday night at Amalie Arena that included Chris Tucker. Here's a complete list of all the activities that have been cancelled or postponed due to Irma.
What about football?
With public schools closed in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando counties, extra-curricular activities for Thursday and Friday are cancelled. That means no high school games can be played on those days.
Pasco County closed its public schools on Friday and moved varsity games to Thursday.
Any word on the Bucs' season opener in Miami? And what's up with the Rays?
The NFL game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins, which was scheduled for Sunday in Miami, has been postponed until week 11. The Rays are in Boston for the weekend.
How is the hurricane affecting flights?
Operations were mostly normal at Tampa International Airport as of Wednesday, according to spokeswoman Emily Nipps. But locals in the Tampa Bay area are reporting issues booking flights out of the Tampa airport to most destinations this week. Flights are either completely booked, unavailable or very expensive. A couple of flights on Delta to the Chicago area taking off on Thursday would cost more than $1,500 round trip, according to booking searches on travel websites like Expedia.com, Kayak.com and even on Delta's website. No flights appear to be available on Allegiant Air this week out of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, according to the airliner's website either.
Where can I book a hotel room?
Hotel rooms in Hillsborough County were increasingly booked with locals and South Florida residents leaving coastal areas, according to the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association. If Irma's path continues to move east and away from Tampa Bay, hoteliers expect reservations to start filling up more quickly, especially by the weekend and through early next week, said Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough tourism marketing agency.
Are special accommodations being made for the homeless?
If a mandatory evacuation is declared, the roughly 30 emergency shelters in Pinellas County will be open to the general public, including the homeless. Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority will deploy buses to designated pick-up locations to transport homeless to the nearest shelter.
The hurricane shelters in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, if opened, will also be available to the general public. The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative has outreach teams to inform homeless individuals about resources during the storm and coordinate with the county to arrange transportation to shelters.
Will hospitals operate through the storm?
Tampa General Hospital, an 1,011-bed faclitiy on Davis Islands, sits in an evacuation zone. But TGH officials say the plan is to operate through Hurricane Irma. Its 800 patients will stay there because it's the safest option for them, said director of security and emergency management Tony Venezia.
The hospital's emergency generators are about 30 feet off the ground, and the staff has plans to move patients on the first two floors upstairs if the building floods. There's enough food for five days and enough fuel to power emergency generators for four, administrators said.
Officials from Bayfront Health, Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, Largo Medical Center, St. Petersburg General Hospital, Northside Hospital, Mease Dunedin Hospital, Mease Countryside Hospital and Morton Plant Hospital said they were staying in touch with emergency management officials.
All Children's in St. Petersburg was constructed after Hurricane Katrina and incorporated hurricane-resistant technology and a backup generator with the intent to keep the hospital running in the event of a major disaster.
Isn't Macdill Air Force Base in a flood zone?
Yes. MacDill juts into Tampa Bay so it's in Flood Zone A, the most vulnerable, and would have to evacuate if ordered by county emergency management officials . As of Wednesday evening, that order had not been given. But officials on the base, home to about 18,000 military and civilian personnel, are considering making their own decision.
MacDill is home to a number of military commands and each will help decide how and where to evacuate its personnel. For U.S. Special Operations Command, for example, which coordinates the fight against violent extremists around the globe and provides commandos to the individual services, the primary relocation area would be Washington, D.C.
The base is also home to 16 KC-135 aerial refueling tankers and several Gulfstream jets used for ferrying generals, admirals and distinguished visitors. It may start moving aircraft off the base as early as Friday.
Are sandbags still available.
Yes, each Tampa Bay area county is providing them. Whether they work is another question. The short answer is you have to use them correctly.
Can I still get supplies?
Retailers across Tampa Bay are trying to replenish supplies like bottled water, plywood and other merchandise that is flying off the shelves at stores across the region. Some Publix Supermarkets are limiting bottled water purchases to two packages per person or four per family in an effort to share supplies evenly. Some local gas stations are reportedly selling bottled water packages for $8 a pop. Publix, a spokesperson said, is getting supply deliveries around the clock.
What if I just order supplies online instead?
Walmart and Amazon are reporting shipping delays for online orders due to overwhelming demands. Walmart stores have suspended all grocery pick up services at stores in Florida for the duration the storm, said a Walmart spokesperson. Walmart has sent 800 truckloads of bottled water to Florida, which began arriving at local stores last night. Walmart stores are restocking shelves by the hour, with the greatest need coming from the southern areas of the state and extending north. Home Depot is also restocking "as quickly as possible," according to a spokesperson.
What shouldn't I do when I'm prepping my house before I evacuate?
You might have heard the tip that cracking your home's windows a little bit can prevent them from breaking with all the wind pressure that can build up outside during a hurricane. But does it really work?
"It's really great for letting the water in your house, making sure there's plenty of mold," said Craig Fugate, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator who once served as Florida's top emergency official. "Basically it's like blowing the roof off the top of your house.
In case his snark isn't clear: "Don't do that. Don't crack your windows."
Another house prep rumor is to use duct tape in a pinch to stop water from entering or windows from breaking. But Fugate said that doesn't do much, either. Instead, plywood and shutters are the best way to go.
Staff writers Howard Altman, Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Mark Puente, C.T. Bowen, Barbara Behrendt, Tony Marrero, Caitlin Johnston, Justine Griffin, Malena Carollo, Langston Taylor, Tracey McManus, Bob Putnam and Divya Kumar contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15.