By Curt Anderson and Claire Galofaro / Associated Press
MIAMI — Irma aimed its sights on millions of homes and businesses in Florida and officials warned that time was running out to evacuate ahead of the deadly hurricane, which was headed Friday on a long-feared path right through the heart of the peninsula.
By early Friday evening, Irma had maximum sustained winds of 155 mph (250 kph) — just below the highest Category 5 status — and is forecast to remain at about that strength when it comes ashore someplace south of Miami on Sunday morning.
Forecasters predicted it would regain the coveted Category 5 status as it approached Key West and they adjusted the storm’s potential track more toward the west coast of Florida, away from the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people.
“Overall, I think it’s a less costly, a less deadly storm on the west coast than the east coast, mostly because there’s fewer people,” University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said.
Either way, the storm promises to be a big test for a state that has undergone rapid development and more stringent hurricane-proof building codes in the last decade or so.
Irma killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean and left thousands homeless as it devastated small resort islands known for their warm, turquoise water.
In Florida, gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars drove on the southbound lanes.
“We’re getting out of this state,” said Manny Zuniga, who left his home in Miami at midnight Thursday to avoid the gridlock. “Irma is going to take all of Florida.”
Despite driving overnight, it still took Zuniga 12 hours to get 230 miles (370 kilometers) to Orlando — a trip that normally takes four hours. From there, he and his wife, two children, two dogs and a ferret were headed to Arkansas.
Across Florida and Georgia, about 1.4 million people were ordered to leave their homes. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said people fleeing could drive slowly in the shoulder lane on highways. He hasn’t reversed the southbound lanes because he said they were needed to deliver gas and supplies.
“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.
Tony Marcellus racked his brain to figure out a way to get his 67-year-old mother and 85-year-old grandfather out of their home five blocks from the ocean in West Palm Beach. He lives 600 miles away in Atlanta. He checked flights but found nothing and rental cars were sold out, so he settled on a modern method of evacuation.
He hired an Uber to pick them up and drive them 170 miles to Orlando, where he met them to take them to Atlanta. He gave the driver a nice tip.
“I have peace of mind now,” said Marcellus’ mother, Celine Jean. “I’ve been worried sick for days.”
Several small, poor communities around Lake Okeechobee in the south-central part of Florida were added to the evacuation list because the lake may overflow — but the governor said engineers expect the protective dike to hold up. Many people in the area said they wouldn’t leave because they either had no transportation or nowhere to go.
Disney World parks will close early Saturday and remain shuttered through Monday, as will Universal Orlando and Sea World.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he planned for enough space to hold 100,000 people before the storm arrives, although most shelters were only beginning to fill on Friday.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992 revealed how lax building codes had become in the country’s most storm-prone state, and Florida began requiring sturdier construction. Now, experts say a monstrously strong Irma could become the most serious test of Florida’s storm-worthiness since then.
Andrew razed Miami’s suburbs with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. Almost all mobile homes in its path were obliterated. The damage totaled $26 billion in Florida’s most-populous areas. More than 40 people were killed in Florida.
CoreLogic, a consultant to insurers, estimated that nearly 8.5 million Florida homes or commercial properties were at extreme, very high or high risk of wind damage from Irma.
Police in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Davie said a 57-year-old man who had been hired to install hurricane shutters Thursday morning died after falling about 15 feet (5 meters) from a ladder and hitting his head on a pool deck. The man’s name wasn’t immediately released.
Forecasters predicted a storm surge of 6 to 12 feet above ground level along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Keys. As much as a foot of rain could fall across the state, with isolated spots receiving 20 inches.
With winds that peaked at 185 mph (300 kph), Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.
Galofaro reported from Orlando. Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Terrance Harris in Orlando and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.