Hurricane Irma is still forecast to hit South Florida Sunday morning as a destructive Category 4 storm. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has ordered the largest mandatory evacuation for a hurricane in the county's history – some 660,000 people. And that also means South Florida’s largest-ever hurricane shelter response.
As of late this afternoon the county had 21 shelters up and running, holding almost 11,000 evacuees. Six of those shelters are already filled to capacity - including one at the Robert Morgan Educational Center in South Dade, which officials say was full up just hours after opening Wednesday afternoon. Speaking at the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center in Doral on Friday, Gimenez said those numbers would grow considerably.
“By the end of the day, we plan to have a total of 43 shelters open, with a total capacity of over 100,000 people," Gimenez said. "We have never done that in Miami-Dade County history…This is an unprecedented event. We are now rewriting a book as we go…Forty-three is way past the number that we would normally open. I think during any, most storms, we may open 12.”
Gimenez has had to turn to the Miami-Dade County Schools, the Red Cross and now even the National Guard in order to realize that record goal.
Due to a communication miscue, many evacuees started showing up at shelters today before they were ready to open. The mayor also stressed that shelters should be a last resort for evacuees – and urged the vast majority of them to hunker down with family, friends and co-workers. (You can find more information about shelters here.)
But Irma's aftermath promises to be even more challenging. No matter where the hurricane makes landfall in South Florida this weekend, it may well be a more catastrophic event for Miami-Dade County than Hurricane Andrew was a quarter century ago.
Gimenez urged residents to be patient in the aftermath. And he warned them it may take officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, longer than anticipated to hit the ground here since they, too, may have to confront Irma.
“I was working as the fire chief for the city of Miami when Hurricane Andrew hit about 25 years ago," he said. "And one of the things I learned was the importance of preparing for after the storm. FEMA has agents in place in Georgia and Alabama, so help will be coming. It may take them a little while because the path of the storm is actually heading toward Georgia and Alabama.”
FEMA is already dealing with the hurricane flooding disaster in south Texas. Thursday night Congress approved more than $15 billion in new money for the agency to handle that catastrophe and the potential one in Florida.