Florida prepares for powerful Hurricane Irma

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) — With the devastation Hurricane Harvey wrought in Texas still fresh on their minds, some Florida residents on Tuesday said they were hastening preparations ahead of Hurricane Irma.

The “potentially catastrophic” Category 5 hurricane is forecast to reach southern Florida on Saturday, prompting Governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency and locals to snatch up whatever bottled water and plywood they could find.

“Normally, people here don’t like to prepare,” said Gary Palmer, a 60-year-old deputy sheriff who visited a home supply store in Fort Lauderdale. “But what happened in Texas opened up everybody’s eyes.”

As residents in Houston continued to dig out from last month’s storm and began returning to school and work on Tuesday, officials in South Florida made plans to close some schools and evacuate vacationers.

Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, issued a mandatory evacuation order for all visitors, and its schools and government offices will be closed starting on Wednesday, the county said on its website.

“My wife is leaving the Keys today,” Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt said in a statement. “She would rather go to the dentist than sit in traffic. The sooner people leave the better. If ever there was a storm to take serious in the Keys, this is it.”

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Irma was the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded outside the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The storm packed winds of 185 miles per hour (295 km per hour) on Tuesday afternoon as it headed toward the Caribbean and southern United States.

Florida’s governor said he had asked President Donald Trump to make a “pre-landfall” emergency declaration. A Category 5 hurricane is the highest NHC designation.

Fort Lauderdale native Alexandra Nimmons, 25, said she was taking Irma’s possible impact on South Florida more seriously after seeing the extreme damage Harvey left behind in Texas.

“I spent a while today collecting water,” Nimmons said. “I hoard Mason and salsa jars so that finally paid off.”

She also planned to stock up on candles, matches and canned food.

Annisa Ali, 45, who just moved to Oakland Park, Florida, from New York City said she was having a hard time finding water at local stores.

“Last night, I went to Wal-Mart. No water. I went to Target. No water. Now I’m here. No water,” Ali said at a grocery store in Wilton Manors, Florida.

James Foote, a 56-year-old handyman in Fort Lauderdale, said he was unable to find any plywood to nail over windows at a local home supply store on Tuesday. He said more wood was expected to be delivered on Wednesday.

“I will be back tomorrow before this place opens at 7 o’clock,” Foote said. “I’ve waited in lines for concert tickets before. This is way more important than that.”

(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

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