Gov. Nathan Deal issued the evacuation Thursday for all areas east of Interstate 95, all of Chatham County and some areas west of the interstate. He also expanded a state of emergency to 30 counties.
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Deal’s order authorizes about 5,000 Georgia National Guard members to be on active duty to help people respond and recover.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, also declared a state of emergency. A major strike there would be the first in nearly 28 years.
FEMA chief Brock Long said people in Florida and other states must heed evacuation orders as the Category Five hurricane surges towards the US after causing death and destruction in the Caribbean.
‘Bottom line is the majority of people along the coast have never experienced a major hurricane like this. It will be truly devastating,’ he told CNN.
Evacuations have already started in the Florida Keys and parts of Miami, and officials say residents should be ready for more in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the location of two nuclear plants in the line of the storm are raising fears of a fallout similar to the Fukushima disaster. While the Turkey Point and St. Lucie power plants are right on the water, officials say they are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and flooding.
By Thursday morning, the center of the storm was about 110 miles (180 kilometers) north of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and was moving west-northwest near 17 mph (28 kph).
The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted Irma would remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it passes just to the north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday, nears the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas by Thursday night and skirts Cuba on Friday night into Saturday.
It will then likely head north toward Florida, where people were rushing to board up homes, fill cars with gasoline and find a route to safety.
Mayors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties issued mandatory evacuation orders starting Thursday morning for barrier islands and low-lying mainland areas in the metro area of 6 million, where forecasters predict the hurricane with winds of 180 mph could strike by early Sunday.
Miami-Dade Mayor Philip Levine called Irma a ‘nuclear hurricane’ as he said once again that everyone in the mandatory evacuation zones ‘must leave’.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has strongly urged his citizens to evacuate if they are asked to do so by local officials, but said the evacuations will not be enforced. That means they won’t be going door to door and arresting people who fail to evacuate.
The order, which went into effect Thursday morning, applies to all of Zone A and parts of Zone B evacuation areas, which include barrier islands and low-lying mainland areas where about 100,000 people live.
Mainland areas of Zone B were not included, but Giminez said they could be told to evacuate in the near future.
Gimenez also ordered the evacuation of residents in mobile homes across the county, about 150,000 people.
Broward County’s order remains voluntary for mobile homes and low-lying areas. Collier County issued a voluntary evacuation order for Marco Island.
City of Miami officials said there are 20 to 25 construction cranes up right now and they are only designed to withstand Category 4 hurricanes. Currently, Irma is a Category 5 and it’s unclear how the cranes will hold up in the wind.
‘Let’s all remember, we can rebuild your home, but we can’t rebuild your life,’ Scott said.
Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, said Irma ‘could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago’.
‘This is the kind of storm that you read about in the history books,’ the Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross told USA Today.
Monroe County, which is made up of the Florida Keys, began requiring all visitors to leave Wednesday morning. All residents were ordered to leave Wednesday evening. It’s estimated that about 25,000 people were under the order.
Meanwhile, the location of two nuclear power plants in the storm’s path are raising concerns.
Spokesman Peter Robbins said: ‘Based on the current track, we would expect severe weather in Florida starting Saturday, meaning we would potentially shut down before that point.’
It can take more than 24 hours to shut down a reactor, so the decision will have to be made well in advance.
Turkey Point, on Biscayne Bay about 24 miles south of Miami, saw off a Category 5 strike from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, sustaining $90million of damage in the process.
Robbins said the plants were designed to withstand extreme natural events including hurricanes and serious floods. The reactors are encased in six feet of steel-reinforced concrete and sit 20 feet above sea level.
When nuclear reactors get shut down they have to be cooled. If they are not, as in the case of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 when a tsunami disabled emergency generators, there can be nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions and the release of radioactive material. FPL says it has backup generators and extra fuel at the ready.
Stores throughout the state, which has been under a state of emergency since Monday, have been struggling to keep their shelves stocked as Floridians have been buying up necessities like bottled water and gas.
On Wednesday, lines stretched at grocery stores, gas stations and home improvement stores as Floridians stocked up for the storm and readied their houses to face the gale-force winds.
Lines stretched around 50 cars deep at one gas station in Cooper City, which is southwest of Fort Lauderdale, by 5:30am Wednesday. The station had been out of fuel on Tuesday night, but received an overnight delivery.
Scott asked the governors of Alabama and Georgia to waive trucking regulations so tankers can get fuel into communities in need.
By ABIGAIL MILLER FOR DAILYMAIL.COM and AFP