Whether by plane, car or train, hundreds of thousands of people are scrambling to get out of South Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma, a massive system that forecasters say is the most powerful storm to hit the Atlantic Coast in more than a decade.
The storm with maximum sustained winds near 185 mph moved over the Leeward Islands Wednesday morning and is expected to hit the northern Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico later in the day. It is expected to reach South Florida between Friday night and Monday.
Hoping to get ahead of the storm, airlines have already begun to cancel flights and issue fee waivers to travelers. Both American and Southwest airlines have a huge presence in the Caribbean while many others recently began to offer service to airports in Cuba.
Though the airport remained open, more than 150 flights into and out of Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport were canceled. More than 50 flights in and out of Princess Juliana International in St. Maarten also were canceled.
Travelers hoping to fly in or out of South Florida airports should expect cancellations and delays in the next couple of days. By Wednesday morning, airlines had canceled dozens of flights to San Juan and Key West. Officials in South Florida said travelers should prepare for more potential delays and cancellations as the storm nears the Florida Peninsula.
There were anecdotal reports from travelers that airlines were charging exorbitant fares for flights out of areas in the path of the storm, but that could not be confirmed early Wednesday.
Airlines including Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and American said they would waive fees for travelers rebooking travel through cities in the path Hurricane Irma.
Across the U.S., flights to Key West, Puerto Rico and some of the Caribbean islands on the path of Irma had been canceled Wednesday.
According to flight tracking website Flight Aware, more than 700 flights had been canceled Wednesday and as many as 260 had been canceled Thursday. Many cancellations were reported to and from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and to the Houston area, still affected by Harvey.
In the U.S., however, all eyes are on South Florida, home to 6 million people. President Donald Trump on Tuesday declared an emergency in the state as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, has ordered all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard report for duty Friday.
Airport officials in South Florida are urging fliers to check with their airlines and prepare for potential cancellations this week.
“We continue to monitor the progress of Hurricane Irma,” Miami International Airport said in an advisory. “While it is too soon to be certain of the storm’s track, Miami is in the cone of concern.”
Gregory Meyer, spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale International Airport said it’s too early to say when or if the airport will close. He said officials expect to have a better timeline on any potential closure Thursday afternoon.
“There are many variables we have to take into consideration such as the projected path and intensity of the storm,” he said. Fliers should keep an eye on twitter updates and stay in touch with airlines, he said.
“The airport is not a shelter and we strongly discourage people from staying here,” said Meyer.
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Meyer said officials also are hearing about inflated fares, but said he couldn’t confirm the price increases, and referred questions to airlines.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office has activated its anti-gouging hotline: Consumers who see massive price increases in food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber and equipment for hurricane preparation should call 1-866-9-NO-SCAM (1-866-966-7226) to report the business.