Latest on Hurricane Irma: Irma regains strength to Category 5 hurricane
The Associated Press
Published Friday, September 8, 2017 7:14AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 8, 2017 11:49PM EDT
MIAMI -- The latest on Hurricane Irma (all times local):
The National Hurricane Center says Irma has strengthened back into a Category 5 storm. Forecasters also extended hurricane and storm surge warnings and watches farther north in Florida.
The centre says Irma made landfall on the Camaguey Archipelago of Cuba late Friday and has maximum sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph).
The hurricane is about 300 miles (485 kilometres) from Miami and moving about 13 mph (20 kph) toward the west.
In the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katia is making landfall north of Tecolutla, Mexico. Katia is still a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 mph (120 kph). Forecasters expect the hurricane to weaken quickly over the next 24 hours.
In the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose has almost hit Category 5 strength, with tops winds of 155 mph (250 kph). Jose is about 265 miles (430 kilometres) east-southeast of the northern Leeward Islands.
South Carolina's governor has ordered the evacuation of seven barrier islands, including Hilton Head Island, because they could be inundated by Hurricane Irma.
Gov. Henry McMaster said Friday that 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 metres) of storm surge is possible on the islands in the southern part of the state even though the centre of Irma is forecast to move 200 miles to the west.
With about 40,000 residents, Hilton Head Island is by far the largest island evacuated. It also has a number of resorts, golf courses and hotels.
South Carolina Adjutant General Robert Livingston estimates 20,000 people have already left Hilton Head Island.
Edisto Beach is also being evacuated, along with Harbor, Hunting, Fripp, Daufuskie, Tullifini and Knowles islands.
McMaster says a change in Irma's track back east might require more evacuations.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has issued a state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Irma.
The remnants of the deadly hurricane are currently projected to sweep into Alabama and Georgia by Monday morning, bringing strong winds and rain.
The governor said even though it appears Alabama will escape the brunt of the storm, the state will certainly be affected by the tropical system.
"We must be ready to respond, no matter what comes our way," Ivey said.
Under the projected track released Friday, the tropical system is expected to sweep into Alabama Monday morning bringing sustained winds of up to 30 mph, with higher gusts in the eastern part of the state.
Alabama Emergency Management Agency meteorologist Jim Stefkovich says the greater inland threat for severe weather is in Georgia, but emphasized that could shift.
A handwritten sign on the door of an Orlando Home Depot reads "sorry, out of plywood" -- a nearly universal problem at stores across the city as residents scrambled to collect supplies, board up their houses and wait out the storm.
Victor Hernandez wandered through the lumber racks just before closing time Friday evening, trying to think up a makeshift solution to protect two big windows at the front of his house.
Hernandez thinks people might be overreacting in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, which sat over that city for days, dumping rain and causing rushing floods. He doesn't believe this storm, moving more quickly, will be so devastating.
"I'm from Cuba, we're used to hurricanes. I grew up ready for storms," said Hernandez, who's lived in Orlando seven years and works as a real estate agent and valet driver.
After his wood run, Hernandez had two more stops to make: Wal-Mart, for some board games, then the liquor store, for a bottle of rum.
Florida has asked 5.6 million people to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma, or more than one quarter of the state's population, according to state emergency officials.
Andrew Sussman, the state's hurricane program manager, said Friday the total includes people throughout the southern half of the state as well as those living in inland Florida in substandard housing who were also told leave due to the dangerous storm that will slam the state this weekend.
Florida is the nation's third-largest state with nearly 21million people according to the U.S. Census.
For days Gov. Rick Scott has been urging residents to evacuate, especially those who live in coastal areas that could be flooded due to the walls of water expected from Irma's arrival.
The National Hurricane Center is warning Floridians that even if the storm seems to moving away from the East Coast in the latest tracks, don't get complacent.
"This is a storm that will kill you if you don't get out of the way," said National Hurricane Center meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
Feltgen says the storm has a really wide eye, with hurricane-force winds that cover the entire Florida peninsula and potentially deadly storm surges on both coasts.
"Everybody's going to feel this one," Feltgen said.
As Florida deals with a catastrophic, dangerous hurricane, it may have a financial storm to deal with.
The annual budget forecast released this week shows, despite an ongoing economic recovery, Florida is expected to bring in just enough money to meet its spending needs.
That forecast shows the state will have a surplus of just $52 million during the fiscal year that starts in July 2018. The new estimate does not take into account the potential effects that will come from Hurricane Irma.
In the past some have speculated hurricanes help the economy because of increased spending. But Amy Baker, the state economist whose office helps put together the forecast, says a look at previous hurricanes showed that the state wound up spending more as a result of the disaster.
Hurricane Irma's predicted path continues to inch west as the massive storm, still armed with 155 mph winds, approaches Florida.
The National Hurricane Center's latest track brings the Category 4 hurricane into southwest Florida, up the state a tad west of the centre region, and further east than earlier forecasts.
However, the margin of error is still large enough that the entire state may get Irma's powerful core. Taking into account Irma's 100-mile-wide hurricane-force winds, University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy says most of the state will feel Irma's wrath.
McNoldy says the storm will be "less costly (and) less deadly" on the state's west coast, in comparison to Florida's east coast, where there are more people.
Forecasters keep moving Irma's projected track a bit west because its long-anticipated turn north keeps getting pushed back. McNoldy says forecasters had expected a high-pressure system to weaken further north, allowing Irma to make the turn, but it is not weakening as fast as originally forecast.
Agricultural charity organization Heifer International said heavy rain and floodwaters from Hurricane Irma has devastated bean and corn crops and pasture land in northern Haiti.
Hurricane Irma skirted the northwestern coast of the impoverished Caribbean country. There were no immediate reports of any deaths.
In a statement, Heifer country director Hervil Cherubin says local farmers that the organization works with were able to protect their goats and other livestock thanks to preparations ahead of time.
Cherubin warned that the flooded pasture land is expected to cause a shortage of forage in the coming months. That and the crop loss will mean that farmers will likely require assistance in the coming months.
When Alix Agudelo heard Hurricane Irma was barrelling toward Orlando, her mind turned to the images she recalled from Hurricane Harvey: people stranded on rooftops as the floodwaters raged around them, clinging to tree branches, wading through neck-deep, rushing water.
She bought three life jackets, just in case, one for herself, one for her 10-year-old daughter, and one for her fiance, Gia Rodriguez. They plan to hunker down in their house, with a little dog named Picasso.
Agudelo's daughter Alix Balcazar shovelled sand into bags as a city distribution centre late Friday afternoon.
"I'm not scared," the girl declared, and her mother smiled.
"We don't want her to know much," she whispered. "We pretend to be calm for the little one. She shouldn't have to feel fear."
Researchers calculated that Friday has had the most hurricane activity in the history of the Atlantic region.
Scientists use a measurement called Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) to give a good snapshot of hurricane activity because it combines storms' wind speeds and how long they spin at such speeds.
With Irma and Jose Category 4 storms and Katia knocking on the door Category 3, Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach calculated that the entire day -- based on universal time -- Friday had an ACE of 16. That beat out the region's record of 14.3 set on Sept. 11, 1961. Thursday now ranks third for ACE with 14.2 and Wednesday ranks fourth at 14.1.
"I can't keep up with all the records," says Klotzbach, who keeps numerous hurricane records.
Hurricane Irma has caused extensive flooding and damaged many homes in the Turks and Caicos Islands southeast of the Bahamas.
Minister of Instructure Gold Ray Ewing says damage on the most populated island of Providenciales will total at least half a billion dollars.
He says no one has yet been able to assess damage on Grand Turk and South Caicos islands.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ewing said that a community known as Blue Hill on the northwestern side of Providenciales is "gone" and that homes have been destroyed across the island.
The Disaster Management Agency says it has no reports yet of any deaths in the British territory.
Flooding is widespread and power is out throughout the island chain. There are many downed trees and utility poles, making some roads impassable.
The storm passed near uninhabited West Caicos on Friday afternoon as it headed toward Florida.
Emergency officials in Georgia are ordering the state's coastal residents to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma. But where should they go?
The storm's unpredictable path beyond Florida is making that a tough question to answer. A westward shift in the storm forecast Friday put Irma's potential path in the same direction many coastal evacuees had been told to flee.
On Thursday, when the forecast showed Irma coming up the coastline, Chatham County emergency management director Dennis Jones had told people in Savannah to "just move west."
Jones was asked again Friday where residents should head after the National Hurricane Center moved its predicted storm track far inland into southern central Georgia.
Jones' reply: "Honestly, I can't tell you where safe is."
The U.S. Navy says four ships are ready to assist with Hurricane Irma relief.
The U.S. Navy Fleet Forces Command said in a statement Friday that Adm. Phil Davidson ordered the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the transport dock ship USS New York and the assault ship USS Iwo Jima to be in position to provide humanitarian relief if requested.
The statement says the destroyer USS Farragut is already "conducting local operations" and has been ordered to join the group.
The ships are capable of providing medical support, maritime security and logistical support.
Irma, which was churning along Cuba's northern coast Friday afternoon, is expected to hit Florida early Sunday morning.
Miami Beach resident George Neary was on one of the last flights out of Miami International Airport before it closed in preparation for Hurricane Irma.
The American Airlines flight left for New York around noon Friday.
"Everyone cheered when we got the OK to take off," Neary said. "It was kind of emotional for a lot of us. We didn't know until it finally left if it was actually going to leave."
Neary says the checking-in and boarding processes were well organized Friday morning.
Neary was planning to attend a business convention in New York and had booked his flight long before a hurricane was forecast to hit Florida. Still, he considered staying.
"I thought about cancelling my flight and staying, but I wouldn't be in my condo anyway," Neary said. "I might as well watch it from New York with my fingers crossed."
Gov. Terry McAuliffe has declared a state of emergency in Virginia so officials can better prepare for Hurricane Irma and help other affected states.
The governor's office said in a statement that the order issued Friday allows the state to mobilize resources including the Virginia National Guard. It also allows people and equipment to be staged to assist in storm response and recovery efforts.
The statement says that while the track of Hurricane Irma is still uncertain, it appears increasingly likely that Virginia will see "significant" impacts. It says the whole state should prepare for possible flooding, high winds and storm surge.
The governor is also urging coastal residents to know what hurricane evacuation zone they live in under the state's new plan unveiled earlier this year. A tool to look up that information is available online.
Dozens of people swarmed like ants Friday filling up white bags with free sand from a huge pile dumped at the Flagler County Airport in Palm Coast, Florida, as they prepared for Hurricane Irma.
Sheriff's deputies watched as four minimum-security county prisoners helped carry bags to residents' cars and trucks.
Daniel Nobles needed the assistance, wincing visibly as he scoped sand into a bag.
"It's a struggle. I have a torn muscle that goes all the way from my chest down to my ribs, and just bending over doing this is a lot of stress," said Nobles, 27. "But I have to protect my property."
Palm Coast is located about 70 miles (113 kilometres) south of Jacksonville.
The operator of two nuclear power plants in Florida says the plants will be shut down well before Hurricane Irma makes landfall.
Florida Power and Light President Eric Silagy said Friday that the company will shut the Turkey Point and St. Lucie plants down 24 hours before the onset of hurricane-level winds. Turkey Point is located south of Miami in Homestead. St. Lucie is on the state's east coast.
Silagy says the two plants are among the strongest structures in the world and are encased in a 6-foot-thick (1.8 metres) cement structure reinforced by steel. The plants also have multiple safety systems and are elevated about 20 feet (6.1 metres) above sea level to protect against flooding and extreme storm surges.
Turkey Point took a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Silagy said officials "will not take any chances, and those plants will be secure."
The death toll from Hurricane Irma has risen to 22 as the storm continues its destructive path through the Caribbean.
The dead include 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands and four in the British Virgin Islands. There was also one each in Barbuda, Anguilla, and Barbados.
The toll is expected to rise as rescuers reach some of the hardest-hit areas.
Irma weakened from a Category 5 to a still-fearsome Category 4 on Friday morning with winds of 155 mph (250 kph) as it churns along Cuba's northern coast.
Uncertainty over the path of Hurricane Irma has prompted Georgia's governor to expand a pre-emptive emergency declaration to cover more than half of the state.
By Friday afternoon, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal had declared a state of emergency for 94 of Georgia's 159 counties. The National Weather Service predicts Irma's centre will cross the state line Monday as the storm churns northward from Florida. But it could arrive anywhere from the coast near Savannah to inland communities near the Georgia-Alabama line.
Evacuations have been ordered only for six counties directly on the Georgia coast, affecting nearly 540,000 people.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump signed an emergency declaration Friday authorizing federal disaster aid for 30 southeast Georgia counties bracing for possible destruction from Irma.
The Palm Beach Post newspaper is evacuating its building in Palm Beach County, Florida, due to Hurricane Irma.
Publisher Timothy Burke informed the staff in a memo on Thursday night. In the memo, Burke acknowledged that some employees had arranged to have their families stay at the building while they worked.
In a Friday email, Burke said the decision was made to allow employees to evacuate to "safer locations." He says the Post building may not be able to withstand a storm above a Category 2 hurricane. Burke says the organization had been helping staff and their families find accommodations.
In his memo, Burke told the staff the media organization would return to its building "as soon as possible."
The Homeland Security Department is temporarily waiving federal restrictions on foreign ships' transportation of cargo in order to help distribute fuel to states and territories affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
In a statement Friday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said, "This is a precautionary measure to ensure we have enough fuel to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure." The seven-day waiver specifically affects shipments of refined products, such as gasoline, in hurricane-affected areas.
The Jones Act prohibits such shipments between U.S. points aboard foreign vessels. The last such waiver was in December 2012, for petroleum products delivered after Hurricane Sandy.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is warning that residents in South Florida only have hours left to evacuate.
Scott on Friday told residents from seven counties that they should leave by midnight or should not get on the road.
"If you are planning to leave and do not leave tonight, you will have to ride out this extremely dangerous storm at your own risk," Scott said.
Hurricane Irma is expected to rip into the state over the weekend. The looming threat of the dangerous storm has triggered a massive evacuation. Those trying to flee have encountered traffic jams and there have been fuel shortages, especially in south Florida.
Scott has urged Floridians for days to heed evacuation orders, but he has also told residents they don't need to leave the region, but instead to seek out nearby shelters.
President Donald Trump says the U.S. is "prepared at the highest level" to deal with Hurricane Irma.
Trump spoke briefly to reporters Friday before boarding Marine One to travel to Camp David for the weekend. He told reporters, "Hopefully everything will go well."
After struggling to hear the shouted questions from reporters, he says that while the storm is "a really bad one," the U.S. is prepared for the dangerous major hurricane heading toward Florida.
Trump received a briefing on Irma earlier in the day. He is spending the weekend at the government-owned mountain retreat in Maryland where he'll monitor the storm and hold a Cabinet meeting on Saturday.
Florida's major theme parks are planning to close as Hurricane Irma approaches the state.
Officials at Walt Disney World in Orlando announced Friday afternoon that its parks will close on Saturday and remain closed through Monday.
Universal Orlando announced on its website that it will close at 7 p.m. Saturday and will remain closed through Monday. Officials said they anticipate reopening on Tuesday.
SeaWorld in Orlando and Busch Gardens, which is in Tampa, also announced plans to shut down at 5 p.m. Saturday and remain closed through Monday.
Last October, the theme parks also closed down for Hurricane Matthew, which skirted Florida's southeast coast.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is urging residents along the state's Gulf Coast to get out of evacuation zones as Hurricane Irma's path has moved slightly west.
During a news conference on Friday afternoon in Lee County in southwest Florida, Scott warned of storm surge which could be between 6 and 12 feet.
"You are not going to survive this if it happens," Scott told residents. "Now is the time to evacuate."
Scott says the state hasn't closed southbound lanes on interstates because of the need to continue getting supplies into South Florida. But he says they've opened the shoulder of Interstate 75's northbound lanes from Wildwood in central Florida to the Georgia line, north of Lake City.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has yet to decide whether to order residents to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma.
McMaster said he is awaiting the next update from the National Hurricane Center. He has scheduled another news conference at 6 p.m. Friday.
Federal forecasters have shifted the centre of Irma well west of South Carolina. But western parts of the state are still in Monday's forecast cone as Irma diminishes from a hurricane to a tropical depression.
McMaster says if he orders people to leave their homes, the evacuation would take effect at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The governor also rescinded parts of an order signed Thursday requiring health care facilities in all coastal counties to move patients inland and not take new, non-emergency patients. The order still applied to three counties.
A top homeland security adviser to President Donald Trump is urging those in the path of Hurricane Irma to stay vigilant and listen to the directions of their local and state officials.
Tom Bossert says at the White House that people in Florida and elsewhere should not be focused on the specific track of the storm, but should make preparations now to take care of themselves and their families.
As Florida deals with gasoline shortages, Bossert says responders are bringing in as much fuel as possible.
Bossert says the Trump administration is thankful that Congress passed the $15.3 billion disaster aid package. He says Trump may sign the bill on Friday.
A top U.S. homeland security adviser says President Donald Trump's administration wants some hurricane-ravaged areas to rebuild with potential flooding in mind.
Thomas Bossert told reporters Friday that officials are reconsidering Trump's executive order last month that rolled back President Obama's directive for flood plain buildings to adhere to tighter standards. Bossert said that people "need to build back smarter and stronger against flood plain concerns when we use federal dollars." He added that the administration will decide new standards over the next month or so.
Trump's order last month revoked Obama's directive requiring that such projects built with federal aid take rising sea levels into account. Trump suggested the predicted risks from sea level rise driven by climate change are overblown.
Authorities in Florida say a man trying to install hurricane shutters in preparation for Hurricane Irma fell from a ladder and died.
Davie Police Sgt. Mark Leone said in an email that a 57-year-old man had been hired to install hurricane shutters Thursday morning. He fell about 15 feet (5 metres) from a ladder and hit his head on a pool deck.
The man was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The man's name wasn't immediately released.
A 16-year-old junior professional surfer in Barbados died this week while surfing large swells generated by Hurricane Irma.
Zander Venezia was surfing on the island's east coast when he drowned Tuesday as the hurricane churned several hundred miles away.
Family friend and surfing instructor Alan Burke said Venezia hit his head and lost consciousness. He said it was a freak accident that occurred under blue skies and ideal surfing conditions.
Burke said Venezia told a friend in his last words that he was surfing the best waves of his life.
Venezia had represented Barbados on its national surfing team as a junior pro.
Laura Strickling and her husband, Taylor, moved to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands three years ago from Washington, D.C., so he could take a job first as a law clerk and then with a law firm.
They rented an apartment at the top floor of a house with a stunning view of the turquoise water of Megan's Bay, which is surrounded by low hills covered in deep green trees. The couple is used to living in tough circumstances: Taylor Strickling worked in Afghanistan for three years, helping to set up a law school, and Laura, an opera singer, visited him there often. They've also lived in Morocco.
But she says nothing prepared them for the stress of spending the night, huddled with their 1-year-old daughter and another couple and their 1-year-old son, inside the basement apartment of the house while Hurricane Irma raged outside for 12 hours. Strickling says she has sat through a Taliban gunfight "and this was scarier."
When they emerged, they found that their apartment on the top floor was unscathed. All around them, though, was destruction, roofs torn from houses, the lush vegetation gone, and power lines strewn about, including across their driveway.
Strickling says she and her husband have no plans to leave St. Thomas, although she admits she is worried about the impending approach of Hurricane Jose.
"It's not good."
Stevet Jeremiah lost her 2-year-old son, her house and all her belongings when Hurricane Irma slammed into the tiny island of Barbuda.
Now she is leaving the island for good.
Jeremiah said her mother and other son had been sent to Antigua and she and her husband were going to follow.
She said she has "nothing, not even an ID to say my name."
When it was still a Category 5 storm, the hurricane ripped the roof off her house and filled it with water. Jeremiah says there was "so much water beating past us, we had to crawl to get to safety." Her son was swept away in floodwaters.
In Antigua, she planned to look for her surviving son and her mother, and start making arrangements for the 2-year-old's funeral.
She said she has experienced hurricanes before, but "never anything like this in my life ... and I don't ever, ever, ever want to see something like this again."
Irma practically decimated houses and other infrastructure on Barbuda, and damaged telecommunications equipment, roads and public utilities. The government has since declared the island a disaster zone and declared a state of emergency.
Officials in Antigua launched a national campaign to open their homes to hurricane victims from Barbuda.
Pope Francis is expressing solidarity with earthquake victims in Mexico as well as those in the path of Hurricane Irma.
Francis spoke after a mass in Villavicencio, Colombia, where he said he's praying those who had lost loved ones or their homes in the disasters.
The pope's visit to Colombia was intended to be a celebration of the country's steps toward peace. But the rising death toll from Irma and the magnitude 8.1 earthquake Thursday night in southern Mexico have somewhat dampened the spirited mood surrounding Francis' visit.
Speaking to the disaster victims, the pope said: "I have you in my heart and am praying for you."
As hundreds of thousands of people evacuate coastal Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma, Tony Marcellus was struggling to figure out how to get his elderly mother and grandfather from their home near the ocean in West Palm Beach to his place in Atlanta, 600 miles away. Flights and rental cars were sold out, so he hired an Uber driver to take them 170 miles to meet him in Orlando.
He says he gave the driver a very nice tip.
Getting out is requiring creative methods. Some are taking any available flight, even to random destinations. Others are combining buses, carpools, and hitching rides with strangers.
Tony's mom Celine says she's been worried sick for days, since her father is in a wheelchair. Now she says she's got peace of mind.
U.S. President Donald Trump says Hurricane Irma "is a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential."
In a video posted to Facebook, the president urges those in Irma's path to be vigilant and heed the recommendations of all government officials.
The storm remains a powerful threat to Florida and the Southeast Atlantic coast.
Trump says his administration is doing all it can to help with disaster preparations, and the U.S. "stands united" to address the storm.
He says, "We will endure and come back stronger than ever before."
Mayor Carlos Gimenez says more than 660,000 residents of Miami-Dade County must evacuate and find hurricane-proof shelter as Irma bears down on Florida. The county plans to open 43 shelters with room for more than 100,000 people by Friday night.
That includes the homeless. The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust says more than 1,000 people live on the streets in Miami, and only 300 have been evacuated so far. Many are willingly moving to shelters, but some have to be detained using the 'Baker Act', a law which allows officers to hospitalize people with mental illness against their will.
The Associated Press was there as Miami police handcuffed one man to evacuate a waterfront park. Another man resisted until police threatened to hospitalize him instead.
Ron Book with the homeless trust says anybody who stays on the streets during this storm is "going to die."
Florida's theme parks are staying open until what seems to be the last moment before Hurricane Irma carves up the peninsula.
Universal Orlando has announced it is closing its parks Sunday, just ahead of when damaging winds should reach central Florida.
Universal Orlando says it's closing all three of its parks at 7 p.m. on Saturday and will remain closed through Monday.
Earlier Friday, Sea World said it will be closing its park on Sunday and Monday, as well. Disney World still has not confirmed its plans.
At this point, all of these parks anticipate re-opening on Tuesday.
Florida's emergency management division says nearly 6,000 people are already huddling in shelters ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Most of the evacuees are gathered in shelters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where catastrophic Category 4 winds are expected to hit this weekend.
Hundreds of thousands of residents have fled in anticipation of Irma's winds and storm surge, which have already killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean. Many roads leaving the state have been jammed with traffic.
Gov. Rick Scott has directed all public schools, colleges and universities and state offices to close through Monday at least to make them available for shelter and staging of recovery efforts.
Floridians fleeing Hurricane Irma have turned Atlanta's freeways into a ribbon of red neon brake lights, with traffic in some spots barely moving.
Thousands of the evacuees have been funneled to the city, since so many them are heading north on Interstate 75 straight to Atlanta.
Some ended up at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which opened its vast camp grounds to anyone trying to escape Irma.
It took 21 hours for Suzanne Pallot of Miami to reach Atlanta Thursday, in an SUV packed with four other people, their luggage and two cats.
After a night at a relative's house, she heard weather forecasts predicting tropical storm force winds for Atlanta on Monday. So the group decided Friday to keep moving, this time to Memphis, Tennessee.
Georgia's governor is still urging nearly 540,000 residents of the state's coast to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma, even as forecasts show the storm's centre could enter the state far inland after churning up the Florida peninsula.
Gov. Nathan Deal told a news conference Friday he's not expanding his evacuation order affecting Georgia's six coastal counties.
But Deal notes that Irma's path remains unpredictable, and forecasts show it could enter Georgia anywhere from the Atlantic coast to the Alabama state line.
The National Weather Service says Irma could still slam coastal Georgia with dangerous storm surge. And while the storm could arrive as a weakened tropical storm, some areas would still face heavy rains and an elevated risk of tornadoes.
Meteorology director Jeff Masters at Weather Underground says Hurricane Irma isn't likely now to regain enough strength to become a Category 5 storm again before it hits Florida. But even though Irma has steadily decreased from 185 mph (298 kph) to 150 mph (241 kph), it remains a dangerous Category 4 storm and will likely hit as one.
That weakening comes at a cost. Now the hurricane-force wind field has expanded greatly, to about 110 miles wide. And that means higher storm surges in a wider area.
Hurricane Jose has now become an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, threatening Caribbean islands already devastated by Hurricane Irma.
Jose now has top sustained winds of 150 mph (240 kph) and as it moves toward the northern leeward islands at a speedy 18 mph.
A Tropical Storm Watch has been issued for St. Thomas and St. John.
The government of Antigua has issued a Tropical Storm Watch for the British Virgin Islands
The government of France has issued a Tropical Storm Warning for St. Martin and St. Barts.
The government of Sint Maarten has issued a Tropical Storm Warning as well.
The latest storm discussion is out from National Hurricane Center reminding people in Florida that Hurricane Irma will likely hit land as a dangerous major hurricane is so immense that it will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of exactly where its centre moves.
The storm surge also could be deadly across southern Florida and the Florida Keys during the next 36 hours. The threat of significant storm surge flooding along the southwest coast of Florida has now increased, with 6 to 12 feet of inundation above ground level possible in this area.
Again, the hurricane centre says this is a life-threatening situation, so everyone in these areas should take all actions to evacuate before rising water makes it impossible.
Associated Press videos show the destruction Hurricane Irma brought to the Caribbean island of St. Martin.
Gnarled black branches of leafless trees, street after street now littered with piles of corrugated tin, plywood, wrought iron, battered cars and unidentifiable objects that were once parts of someone's life.
Handfuls of people are stumbling through the debris. One reaches the property where her home has now disappeared and says "Oh my God ... Where did you go?"
There's little left of the Hotel Mercure -- just its sign, painted on one of the walls that still stand amid the ruins. As some begin to clean up, others line up outside a hospital, where the first two syllables of an "EMERGENCY" sign lie on the ground.
Authorities on the Dutch territory of St. Maarten say it will take months before people can recover from Hurricane Irma. Prime Minister William Marlin told the Dutch military that the Caribbean island lost many, many homes; schools are destroyed; both government buildings are severely damaged; many people have lost their homes; hotels are so damaged that tourists won't come; the electricity company lost its roof so generators aren't working; nearly half the water tanks are gone; and all the gas stations are destroyed.
He also confirms that people have been looting. He calls it "a psychological thing that happens anywhere in the world following a major disaster like this. People become kind of hopeless and there is no communication."
After days of saying they would continue with normal operations while monitoring Irma, Sea World and its properties on Friday announced closings for the weekend.
Sea World and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay will close down at 5 p.m. on Saturday, pending further updates on the storm. Both parks will remain closed Sunday and Monday. Aquatics Orlando will be closed Saturday through Monday. Discovery Cove will be closed Sunday and Monday. Disney World and Universal Orlando have not responded for requests on updated to their plans.
As of Thursday both parks said they will continue with normal business hours but are monitoring the storm.
The death toll from Hurricane Irma has increased to 20 with four more deaths reported in the British Virgin Islands. The other lives lost include nine on the French Caribbean islands of St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and one each on the islands of Anguilla, Barbuda and the Dutch side of St. Martin.
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency gave no details about the latest confirmed deaths in the British territory of about 40 small islands, where Irma caused major damage late Wednesday, especially to the largest and most populated island of Tortola.
The British government has been co-ordinating relief efforts to the cluster of islands near Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Caribbean disaster agency says the Tortola airport is operational but the tower has been "compromised."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said traffic officials have decided against reversing the direction of southbound lanes because they still need to move gas and supplies south.
A massive evacuation has clogged Florida's major highways. Scott says most of the state will have hurricane impacts and "we are running out of time -- the storm is almost here." So what they are doing is opening up the shoulders to drivers on Interstate 75 from Wildwood, where the Florida turnpike ends, to the Georgia state line.
In Georgia meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal just announced contraflow starting Saturday morning on Interstate 16 to ease the mandatory evacuation from Savannah and other coastal communities.
Harvey and Irma. Who knew? Certainly not Harvey and Irma Schluter of Washington state. Married 75 years now, they're wondering how it came to be that two major hurricanes bearing their names are poised to strike the U.S. back-to-back.
The New York Times reports 104-year-old Harvey married 92-year-old Irma in 1942.
There have been a few storms named Harvey since then, but none followed by an Irma.
And this is likely the last time a Harvey and Irma swirl through the Atlantic. The World Meteorological Organization alternates men's and women's names in alphabetical order for Atlantic storms. But since these two have caused widespread damage, they are almost certain to be retired.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told Florida's governor that the structural integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike containing Lake Okeechobee "will not be compromised" by Hurricane Irma. But voluntary evacuations for communities surrounding the lake's southern half are now mandatory, because it's possible Irma's winds will push water over the dike.
The seven cities under mandatory evacuation orders are South Bay, Lake Harbor, Pahokee, Moore Haven, Clewiston, Belle Glade and Canal Point.
The same area was hit back in 1928 by the Okeechobee hurricane, which made landfall with 145 mph winds. The dikes failed then and at least 2,500 people drowned, most of them farmworkers and their families. More than 1,700 buildings were destroyed by that storm. But the only reported impact on the nearby Mar-a-Lago mansion, now owned by President Donald Trump, was a damaged Roman-style window.
All five living former U.S. presidents have issued a joint "One America Appeal" for donations to support the staggering recovery needs from Hurricane Harvey. Now that Hurricane Irma has damaged Puerto Rico and is closing in on Florida, the presidents are expanding the appeal to help its victims as well.
The appeal launched with a public service announcement focused on "Our Friends in Texas" during the NFL season opener, but a second PSA addressing both hurricanes is launching this weekend, and a website for tax-deductible donations related to both storms is now live at OneAmericaAppeal.org.
A special restricted account has been established through the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation to collect and quickly distribute donations to ensure 100 cents out of every dollar goes to assist hurricane victims. The Carter Center says Harvey has displaced more than one million people and caused an estimated $180 billion in damage over its 300-mile path of destruction.
Some forecasters have predicted that Irma's economic toll could be even greater.
For an entire generation in South Florida, Hurricane Andrew was the definition of a monster storm.
For the people who led victims through that devastating aftermath, Hurricane Irma is looking far worse by nearly every measure.
Weather Channel senior hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross was a local television meteorologist hailed as a hero back then. He says Irma's impact on Florida will be much greater -- "an entirely different level of phenomenon."
Kate Hale grabbed attention as Miami-Dade's emergency management chief by saying "where the hell is the cavalry" after Andrew laid waste to half the county. She says nobody could make up a worse scenario than Irma right now. Combined with flooding from Hurricane Harvey and wildfires out west, she says the effect on the nation's economy is "potentially staggering."
U.S. President Donald Trump is urging people to "be safe" as Hurricane Irma approaches.
On Twitter Friday, Trump wrote, "Hurricane Irma is of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen. Be safe and get out of its way, if possible."
Trump added that the federal government is ready, and in another tweet, he said: "Our incredible U.S. Coast Guard saved more than 15,000 lives last week with Harvey. Irma could be even tougher. We love our Coast Guard!"
Coastal residents around South Florida have been ordered to evacuate as the killer storm closes in on the peninsula for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.
The Miami Marlins are in Atlanta for the start of a weeklong road trip with Hurricane Irma very much on their minds. They arrived on a chartered flight crowded with the families of players and staff. That helped ease some immediate concerns, but they couldn't ignore what's going on back in Miami, where highways are jammed as coastal residents face mandatory evacuations.
Miami Manager Don Mattingly says the team is still watching what happened with Harvey, and now worrying that Irma could devastate their hometown.
The National Hurricane Center says Hurricane Irma weakened a bit more but remains a powerful threat to Florida with storm surges that could reach 10 feet in some places.
Irma's winds dropped to 150 mph, still a Category 4 dangerous storm, as it moves between Cuba and the Bahamas over warmer than normal waters that can intensify tropical storms. Irma's core should hit Florida early Sunday morning, but its tropical force storm winds can arrive as early as Saturday morning.
The hurricane centre is projecting storm surge on top of normal tides of 5 to 10 feet all the way from Jupiter Inlet, which is north of Palm Beach on Florida's east coast, around to Bonita Beach, which is on Florida's west coast south of Fort Myers. The Florida Keys will likely be swamped. From Bonita Beach north to Venice, storm surge is expected to be 3 to 5 feet. And from Jupiter Inlet north to Sebastian Inlet, which is just south of Cape Canaveral, it is expected to be 3 to 6 feet.
Forecasters say this life-threatening surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long offered some advice for people in the path of Hurricane Irma who've been ordered to evacuate: Get out now.
Speaking at FEMA headquarters in Washington on Friday, Long said no one in Florida has experienced a storm with the intensity of what's now bearing down on the state. He said there is "a lot of certainty in this forecast" showing Irma making landfall somewhere in Florida this weekend, and the winds and storm surge from the storm will be devastating.
Long said those in low-lying areas who've been told to evacuate "need to get out and heed the warning."
More than 8,000 FEMA staff have been deployed to prepare for Irma and help with the continuing recovery effort from Hurricane Harvey, which caused massive flooding in southeastern Texas last week.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb says Hurricane Irma has left at least nine people dead, seven missing and 112 injured on the French Caribbean islands of St. Martin and St. Barts and urged coastal residents to take shelter as a new storm approaches.
Collomb told reporters Friday that the casualty toll could rise as more emergency workers reach deeper into the area.
He said France is shuttling security forces, emergency workers and aid to the islands before Hurricane Jose hits St. Martin and St. Barts on Saturday night. He said the top priority is to "save the population and restore order" after looting broke out in some areas.
The French rescue operation includes military frigates, military and civilian planes and helicopters. A warship is leaving from France next Tuesday to bring heavy equipment to help rebuild the islands, where the government says a majority of buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Dutch King Willem-Alexander will fly to the Caribbean island of Curacao on Sunday to inspect the co-ordination of relief efforts for devastated former colony St. Maarten in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which hit as a Category 5 storm.
The Royal House announced the visit Friday, saying the monarch will assess in Curacao "whether and when it is possible to visit St. Maarten" and nearby Dutch islands Saba and St. Eustatius, which were less severely damaged by Irma's winds.
A headquarters in Curacao is helping co-ordinate a military operation to deliver supplies to the 40,000-strong population of St. Maarten. The tiny country, which shares an island with the French territory of St. Martin, has been autonomous since 2010, but remains part of the Dutch commonwealth.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte says that most people are surviving on the island without the basic necessities of life. Power, running water and most communications were knocked out by the powerful storm and looting has been reported by local authorities struggling to keep control of the island.
Dutch military forces are helping maintain order and distributing aid to the shattered former colony of St. Maarten after clearing the runway at the capital's badly damaged airport and securing berths in the harbour for two navy ships to bring ashore supplies.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters Friday that the first plane already has landed at the airport in the capital, Philipsburg, and navy vessels have unloaded vital supplies in a race against time before the next storm arrives.
Hurricane Jose is forecast to pass through the region Saturday, but Rutte says it's not expected - at the moment - to directly hit St. Maarten as Irma did Wednesday and winds will likely be significantly weaker.
Rutte and Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk say troops are helping stretched local authorities on the autonomous territory to uphold law and order amid looting of stores. St. Maarten is the Dutch side of St. Martin, an island split between Dutch and French control.
France's government is reporting looting of televisions and other goods on the Caribbean island of St. Martin after it was hammered by Hurricane Irma, as warships and military planes ferry police and rescue crews to the site.
Annick Girardin, minister for France's overseas territories, described on BFM television Friday "scenes of pillaging" of televisions as well as food and water.
She lamented "how people can take advantage of the distress of others" and said it's essential for police to restore order and ensure urgent care for victims. The French government says four people are confirmed dead and about 50 injured on the French side of St. Martin. Another death was reported on the Dutch side of the shared island.
French military spokesman Col. Patrik Steiger told The Associated Press two French frigates are expected to arrive on St. Martin on Friday and military transport planes and helicopters are bringing in personnel and aid to the local population from the nearby French island of Guadeloupe.
Hurricane Irma has weakened to a Category 4 storm Friday as it batters the Caribbean on a path toward Florida but remains a powerful hurricane.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Irma's maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 155 mph (250 kph). The hurricane centre says some fluctuations in strength are likely over the next day or two but Irma is expected to stay a Category 4 storm.
Just before 5 a.m. EDT Friday, the hurricane was centred about 55 miles (90 kilometres) northwest of Great Inagua Island and 495 miles (795 kilometres) southeast of Miami.
Hurricane Irma battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday as the fearsome Category 5 storm continued a rampage through the Caribbean that has killed at least 11 people, with Florida in its sights.
Waves as high as 20 feet (6 metres) are expected in the Turks and Caicos. Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was unclear.
The first hurricane warnings were issued for parts of southern Florida as the state braced for what could be a catastrophic hit over the weekend. Following in Irma's wake was Hurricane Jose, with some of the islands hit hardest by Irma in its expected path.