Tourists ordered to evacuate Florida's Key West ahead of Hurricane Irma

 05 Sep 2017 - 22:53

Tourists ordered to evacuate Florida's Key West ahead of Hurricane Irma
Beach chairs are seen at a beach as hurricane Irma approaches Puerto Rico in San Juan, on September 5, 2017. AFP / Ricardo Arduengo

AFP

Miami:  Tourists in Key West are packing their bags on a mandatory evacuation order as Hurricane Irma, a potent Category 5 storm, churns toward the island chain off south Florida, officials said Tuesday.

Visitors are expected to begin leaving at sunrise Wednesday, and an order for residents will soon follow, said a statement from Monroe County, which includes the popular resort island of Key West.

"We're emphatically telling people you must evacuate, you cannot afford to stay on an island with a Category 5 hurricane coming at you," said Monroe County emergency operations center director Martin Senterfitt.

Most of the island chain, known as the Keys, is just three to five feet (0.9-1.5 meters) above sea level, he added.

Hurricane Irma is expected to bring storm surges of seven to 11 feet above normal in the Leeward Islands and British and US Virgin Islands, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The "extremely dangerous" storm is forecast to reach the Leeward Islands later Tuesday and early Wednesday.

It is moving westward, packing maximum wind speeds of near 185 miles (295 kilometers) per hour with higher gusts, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

Local weather forecasters say the outer edge of the storm's winds and rain could reach south Florida by late Friday.

Three hospitals in the Keys have begun plans to evacuate their patients, and schools on the islands are closed from Wednesday to Friday, the county said.

Further north, schools across Miami-Dade County will be closed Thursday and Friday, and more evacuation orders could follow, officials said.