Hurricane Irma: Evacuations, anxiety as storm edges closer to Tampa Bay

Yvette Sedeno, 62, left, and Ray Sedeno, 62, install storm shutters on to their windows on their lanai while preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Irma on Friday (9/8/17) afternoon in unincorporated Dade County, south of Miami.
Yvette Sedeno, 62, left, and Ray Sedeno, 62, install storm shutters on to their windows on their lanai while preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Irma on Friday (9/8/17) afternoon in unincorporated Dade County, south of Miami.
Published Sept. 9, 2017

Hurricane Irma continued its ominous march toward Florida on Friday as residents prepared to escape or survive the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded.

LIVE BLOG: The latest on Hurricane Irma

In Tampa Bay, the wait grew more anxious: The latest forecasts show the monster storm making landfall near Naples on Sunday before making its expected trek up the state, bringing it closer to the bay area.

Locally, more evacuations were ordered. More offices, businesses, schools and stores shut down. The wait to stock up on gas, water and supplies continued. And many Tampa Bay residents packed their vehicles and joined the massive exodus from South Florida.

"I can guarantee you that I don't know anyone in Florida that has ever experienced what's about to hit South Florida," Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said. "They need to get out."

FRIDAY'S DEVELOPMENTS: Hurricane Irma: Portions of Tampa Bay under hurricane watch as Category 4 Irma targets Florida

COMPLETE COVERAGE:Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

Irma had weakened slightly to a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of up to 155 mph. It churned west at 14 mph after devastating the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas. The storm was expected to turn toward Florida on Saturday afternoon.

Nearly 6 million Floridians — a quarter of the state's population — were told to evacuate.

If the current track holds, the Tampa Bay region should start experiencing tropical storm-force winds by 8 a.m. Sunday. Then residents will have to take cover until the night, when the storm — which could pack Category 2 strength-winds — passes east of the bay area.

Gov. Rick Scott had ordered all public schools, state colleges and universities and state offices to shut down Friday through Monday so that as many shelters can be opened as possible.

He also told residents on Friday to only drive as far as they need to find shelter. If they were not on the road by midnight Friday, he said, then they shouldn't try to drive long distances.

"If you don't need to be on the road," Scott said at a briefing in Tampa, "get off and go to a shelter." He also told Floridians to obey evacuation orders.

"If you're told to leave, get out."

EVACUATION MAPS: Find evacuation maps for Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas.

Evacuations across Tampa Bay intensified:

• Pasco County extended its mandatory evacuation order for up to 120,000 residents, telling all who live west of U.S. 19 and an area north of Fox Hollow Drive and west of Little Road to seek shelter. That's on top of the 64,000 mobile or manufactured home occupants told to evacuate.

• Hernando County officials issued a mandatory evacuation of up to 100,000 residents in Zones A and B, which includes coastal areas and all 11,700 mobile and manufactured homes. They also told residents in Zone C, who live along U.S. 19, to get ready.

• Hillsborough County had already ordered a voluntary evacuation of Zone A on Thursday and a mandatory evacuation of special needs residents there. Tampa issued a mandatory evacuation order that included people in Zone A, high-rises, hotels, mobile homes, and those with special needs.

• Pinellas County continued its mandatory evacuation for up to 160,000 in Zone A, those who live in low-lying areas and mobile and manufactured homes. When Zone B and C evacuations are announced, more shelters will open.

Kevin Guthrie, Pasco County's assistant county administrator for public safety, warned residents to heed evacuation orders. If they wait too long to go, they could find themselves isolated while in harm's way. First-responders cannot reach them once wind speeds hit 40 mph.

"If you have a heart attack, we are not coming to you," Guthrie said. "If your roof collapses, we'll come as soon as we can."

In Clearwater, Raymond Hartley had made his decision: He wasn't leaving his mobile home despite evacuation orders. He said he couldn't even if he wanted to.

"I don't have the money to just pick up and leave," he said.

He also has six cats that he said he can't carry to a hotel. He won't go without them.

A retired Army veteran, Hartley, 59, said evacuating would mean gas money and who-knows-how-many hotel nights until he'd be able to return.

Hartley cooked a pot of spaghetti, figuring he could eat it cold if the power goes out.

He's lived in Florida for 25 years. This is just how it goes, he said.

"I'm not concerned at all," he said. "I've been through eight of these."

Others obeyed. When Lise Fournier left Boston to retire in a Largo mobile home, she wasn't thinking about hurricanes. Then she was ordered to evacuate.

"I moved here three years ago because I wanted to live where I was going to retire," said Fournier, 59, "but this has really scared the heck out of me."

She uses an oxygen tank, so she was assigned to Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, the designated shelter for special needs people and the general public with pets. She joined her son, Steven Dickinson, 33, and his wife, Alica Ward, 21, there with their two dogs.

"Mobile homes are the first things to go in a storm," Ward said. "I'm afraid there will be a hole in the roof or no trailer at all."

The decision to stay or go divided families.

Ellen Nizzi, 96, had no plans to evacuate her Sand Key home. But Nizzi was at Tampa International Airport on Friday because her granddaughter in Illinois, Jennifer Jones, had other ideas.

"She bought the ticket and said 'You're not staying,'" said her other daughter, Catherine Batsche, 69, as she pushed her mother's wheelchair.

Batsche said she had her own plane ticket out of Florida for Saturday.

"I'm going to wait and see if the storm turns," she said.

No matter which way Irma shifts Saturday, east or west, the overriding concern driving evacuation efforts is the storm's size. Few areas in the state will escape what it dishes out.

Irma isn't just big, it is massive — wider than the whole peninsula. Its hurricane-force winds span an area the size of Massachusetts, extending 70 miles out from the eye. It's tropical storm-force winds would nearly cover Georgia, with a reach of up to 185 miles.

While questions linger about Irma's final path as it turns north toward Florida on Saturday, forecasters were beginning to get a clearer picture of what the Tampa Bay area could face.

"Wind, wind, wind … the biggest concern for us, right now, is wind," said 10Weather WTSP metrologist Grant Gilmore. "The worst impact possibly bringing Category 2 winds over inland spots of the bay area Sunday night, overnight into Monday morning."

Perhaps less clear are the impacts when it comes to water. The Gulf Coast from Venice north to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay, is under a storm surge watch, meaning "life-threatening inundation" is possible in those areas over the next two days.

Any storm surge threat won't come until Sunday night, said National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Davis. The way it looked Friday, he said, the Tampa Bay area could see more than 3 feet of storm surge. But it would be delayed, coming with the back end of the storm.

However, if the track were to move west over the Gulf of Mexico — a scenario that few models foresee — storm surge would rise during the brunt of the storm, much like it's expected to do in South Florida.

In Miami, a fear gripped Yvette Sedeno that she hasn't felt since 1992.

That's when Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to strike Florida, devastated South Florida. And Irma is already bigger than Andrew.

"I'm scared as hell," said Sedeno, 62. "I'm really terrified. I really am. I'm scared of losing everything."

South of Miami, Homestead residents feared history would repeat itself. The small city was wiped out by Andrew. It wrecked Jeff Porter's home. He was born in Homestead. So was his mom. So was his wife. So he stayed. Now he's the mayor.

He thought his city had moved on, 25 years after Andrew. Now it's all rushing back.

"Andrew was the worst thing I'd seen in my entire life," he said, "and most of the people you talked to would say the same thing."

Porter focused on getting his own home ready for the storm.

"I can't be scared," he said. "I don't have time to be scared."

On the opposite coast, in the town of LaBelle, 17-year-old Alberto Cabana was doing the best he could at the high school-turned-shelter. He was both an evacuee and a volunteer there.

"If I'm going to stay here I might as well make a positive difference," he said.

The family would have left ahead of Irma if they could have, but they lost their car in July because of engine problems. With nowhere to go, they had no choice.

"That kind of blew the window for any chance of getting out of the city," he said. "I'm trapped."

He stood inside the gym, he had to maintain his composure for his siblings, 9, 11 and 15.

The family doesn't own their home. But they could still lose everything.

"If it's destroyed," Alberto said, "then we don't know where we'd go."

Times staff writers Jonathan Capriel, Kristen M. Clark, Richard Danielson, Justine Griffin, Tony Marrero, Samantha Putterman and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.