(TVR) – Hurricane Irma roared onshore over the Florida Keys, making landfall on Sunday further west than first expected, but still as an “extremely dangerous” category four storm, bringing with it “imminent danger” of flooding to parts of south Florida and up to 20 inches of rain, after the strongest storm on record slammed into Cuba and cruise ships launched rescue missions elsewhere in the Caribbean. It is the first category four landfall in the Keys in 57 years.
At least 100,000 people took cover in 300 crowded shelters across Florida as Irma made landfall, CBS News reported, with winds near 130mph and even higher gusts. Three deaths in Florida are blamed on the storm.
More than two million people are without power, as forecasters predicted Irma would rake northward along Florida’s west coast toward Tampa, which hasn’t been pummeled by a major hurricane since 1921.
Irma is then expected to “move inland over northern Florida and southwestern Georgia Monday afternoon,” the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
“There is an imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding in portions of central and southern Florida,” the NWS warned, with storm surges as high as 15 feet. A wind gust at the Naples Municipal Airport measured 142 mph.
Mandatory evacuations spread to South Carolina, with millions now under orders to leave their homes and the head of FEMA warning the menacing hurricane won’t just damage Florida as first feared, but is also “going to devastate the United States,” in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
In stark language rarely seen from the NWS, government forecasters warned, in all capital letters: “THIS IS AS REAL AS IT GETS…NOWHERE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS WILL BE SAFE,” and that the “window of opportunity” to leave would close in mere hours.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Jose, now a category three storm—the first time on record two 150mph or stronger hurricanes churned through the Atlantic at the same time—took aim at some Caribbean islands already lashed by Irma, while Hurricane Katia dissipated after making landfall in Mexico.
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Cruise Rescues Underway; Airports Close
The final South Florida airports that remained open for commercial flights closed Saturday evening, including Orlando (MCO) and Tampa International Airport (TPA). Ten airports are now closed.
Airports in Miami (MIA), Ft. Lauderdale (FLL), St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (PIE), and West Palm Beach (PBI) closed Friday, after Key West International Airport (EYW) closed Thursday night.
TSA said about 200 of its personnel were in mandatory evacuation zones and would need to leave.
In all, at least 12,587 flights to or from 30 airports in the Caribbean and the U.S. have been cancelled due to Irma, according to FlightAware.
To aid in the evacuation effort, airlines capped ticket prices and waived fees for evacuees after accusations of price gouging.
Irma lashed the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico—both American territories popular with tourists—with maximum sustained winds near 175mph with even higher gusts, the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Twitter.
Norwegian Cruise Line said Saturday it was sending its Norwegian Sky ship on a humanitarian mission from Cancun to St. Thomas to rescue approximately 2,000 travelers stranded after Irma struck. It is expected to arrive late Monday night.
“Acting as a responsible corporate citizen and supporting the destinations that our ships operate in is a core value of Norwegian Cruise Line,” the cruise carrier said in a statement.
Royal Caribbean is diverting its Adventure of the Seas cruise, full with passengers onboard, on Sunday to St. Maarten with “relief supplies, food, fresh water,” James Van Fleet, the company’s chief meteorologist, said on Twitter. In addition, it is cancelling its Sept. 15th sailing of the Majesty of the Seas “so that the cruise line can utilize the ship for humanitarian efforts in areas of the Caribbean with urgent need,” Royal Caribbean said in a statement.
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Irma a ‘Life-Threatening’ Storm
The National Hurricane Center warned Irma is an “extremely dangerous” category four hurricane and “will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards” to territories in its path, including the Bahamas and Cuba. At one point, tropical-storm-force winds extended outward by up to 220 miles from the center of the storm.
The University of Miami cancelled its game at Arkansas State scheduled for Saturday, the Associated Press reported, and the NFL postponed the regular season opener between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins set for Sunday.
Airports Close Due to Damage
Nine airports in Florida shut down as Irma made landfall, after another nine in the Caribbean closed down days earlier.
JetBlue said it capped prices in Florida after critics slammed some airlines for raising prices sky-high for departures from the hurricane’s path, even some as above $1,000, Yahoo Finance reported.
Several U.S. senators asked the Transportation Department to investigate, The Washington Post learned.
American and Delta also capped fares; American said its $99 economy cap would also apply until Sept. 17 for those returning after the storm passes. Delta said it would waive all baggage and pet-in-cabin fees for passengers flying to or from the cities in the hurricane’s path covered by its weather waiver. The carrier also expanded capacity, adding more than 10,000 extra seats to eight airports in the affected areas.
Airlines also waived cancellation and change fees for travel this week to and from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Maarten, and other popular Caribbean destinations due to Irma.
Delta offered fee-free changes for 36 airports for travel Sept 6-17, including in Florida; its hub in Atlanta, Georgia; and South Carolina. It planned to cancel all its flights to Key West (EYW), Miami (MIA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), and West Palm Beach (PBI) on Saturday.
American Airlines issued a waiver covering 53 airports, including some on the U.S. mainland and its Miami hub, for various days through the next week.
United Airlines issued a waiver for travel through 22 airports, including major airports in Florida, for various dates, some as far as Sept. 30.
Spirit Airlines posted a waiver for 11 airports for various dates through Sept. 11.
JetBlue also offered changes to travel itineraries for free for passengers traveling to 27 airports; dates varied.
Southwest Airlines issued a waiver for passengers flying Tuesday through Sept. 17, to 13 airports. The carrier plans to cancel all flights Saturday to Orland (MCO) and Sunday to or from FLL, RSW, and PBI.
Air Canada announced free changes for customers traveling to any airport in Florida, as well as 15 Caribbean airports.
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Mandatory Evacuations in Florida
Mandatory evacuations that began in Miami-Dade County Thursday continued on Friday, the last full day before Irma’s effects were forecast to slam Florida.
Monroe County, Florida, leaders ordered an evacuation for everyone.
Monroe County includes the popular areas of Key West and Everglades National Park.
The U.S. Navy also ordered active duty, civilians, and families to evacuate Naval Air Station Key West.
The state suspended toll collection on popular routes leading out of the storm zone.
One sign Tuesday night on Interstate 95 northbound in Miami during the bumper-to-bumper evening rush hour on Tuesday read, “TOLLS SUSPENDED BY ORDER OF GOVERNOR.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a state of emergency order that includes every county, which will free up state resources to help residents prepare, declaring that Irma “poses a severe threat” to the state.
Hurricane Irma “is bigger, faster, and stronger than Hurricane Andrew,” Gov. Scott said.
Scott activated 4,000 members of the National Guard.
Georgia’s governor ordered mandatory evacuations for Savannah and other costal communities that goes into effect on Saturday.
Miami mother-of-two Megan Camp and her husband, Geoff, evacuated with their family Wednesday afternoon.
“After just moving from Houston and seeing what my friends went through, I knew under no circumstance would I put my family in any kind of danger especially knowing the strength of what they say Irma will be,” she told The Voyage Report while in the car heading northward.
“We outta here!”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service predicted tropical-storm-force winds would reach as far north as Virginia and West Virginia by Monday, according to a wind speed probability map.
Hurricanes Jose and Katia
Katia weakened Saturday to a tropical storm after making landfall in Mexico late Friday night as a hurricane.
The trio of storms in the Atlantic is an unprecedented barrage of hurricanes.
Cruise Ships Divert from Irma’s Path
All cruises originally scheduled to depart Florida on Friday have been cancelled, USA TODAY reported, after other cruise ships bound for Caribbean destinations have been diverted or cancelled.
Carnival Cruise Line’s Liberty, Victory, and Ecstasy Bahamas cruises, as well as the Splendor Eastern Caribbean cruise, have been cancelled. Thirteen other sailings have all made changes to their itineraries, a spokesperson confirmed to The Voyage Report, including avoiding ports in St. Thomas, Nassau, the Dominican Republic, and Grand Turk for affected dates. Carnival is headquartered in South Florida and it says it is “making preparations” for Irma’s landfall there.
Royal Caribbean announced it has canceled the Enchantment of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas sailings to the Bahamas; both were scheduled for Sept 8.
Customers can get a full refund, as well as 25% credit on a future cruise for bookings within the next month.
The Allure of the Seas has been re-routed to the Western Caribbean to avoid the storm and the Allure is also moving west, cancelling the Labadee, Haiti, port of call.
Norwegian announced it has canceled its Sky and Escape sailings from Miami for this weekend and its Sky sailing scheduled for Monday; other itineraries were modified.
Disney cancelled its Dream sailing.
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Coast Guard Closes Ports
On Wednesday, the Coast Guard raised its alert level for South Florida ports warning that sustained gale force winds could arrive within 72 hours.
The USCG alert level in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is now at its highest level.
Port Condition ZULU means all ports are closed to traffic and all ship-to-shore operations “must cease until further notice.”
Irma Forms Right After Harvey Hit
Hurricane Irma is threatening American cities at the same time there is still flooding in parts of the South due to Hurricane Harvey, which struck the U.S. last week as the strongest storm to hit the mainland in a dozen years.
The catastrophic flooding and record rainfall forced the closure of 11 airports, thousands of rescues, mandatory evacuations, and more than 9,500 cancelled flights.
Cruise ships such as Carnival Cruise Line’s Freedom, Valor, and Breeze could not dock or had to make alternate plans.
As oil refineries closed along the Texas coastline, gas prices rose to the highest level in two years, right at the start of the extended Labor Day weekend.
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‘Above-Normal’ Hurricane Season Predicted
NOAA has predicted the 2017 hurricane season will be “above-normal” this year, with far-reaching implications for airlines, cruise ships, and travelers in North America.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its hurricane forecast to increase the number of named storms and major hurricanes it expects, as well as predicting a “higher likelihood” of an above-normal season.
In fact, the hurricane season that began June 1st and lasts until the end of November could be “the most active since 2010,” NOAA said in its forecast.
“This season has had a running start,” Ben Friedman, NOAA’s acting administrators, told reporters this month.
“We’re now entering the peak of the season when the bulk of the storms usually form,” added Dr. Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center.
2017 Hurricane Season ‘Extremely Active’
NOAA forecasters predict the 2017 hurricane season will be “extremely active,” with 14 to 19 named storms.
The outlook is based on warmer waters in the Atlantic and a reduced chance of an El Nino pattern forming, which can prevent storms from gathering strength.
That’s almost the total number of storms in an entire average season, NOAA said.
Three of the storms hit the United States, with Irma possibly the fourth to do so.
“As we enter the height of hurricane season, it’s important for everyone to know who issues evacuation orders in their community, heed the warnings, update their insurance and have a preparedness plan,” said FEMA Administrator Brock Long in a statement.
Before Harvey struck, a major hurricane with sustained winds of 111 mpg and higher had not made landfall in the U.S. in 12 years, not since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, CNN reported.
This is a developing story and will be updated…
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