Widespread and prolonged power outages will become part of life for most Floridians over the next few days as Hurricane Irma has started to make an anticipated northern turn that will result in a destructive run through the state starting Sunday.
The storm is on a more western track than earlier in the week and is expected to bring storm surges of up to 8 feet in Tampa and 15 feet in Southwest Florida.
The powerful storm, which left fatalities in its march through the Caribbean and is headed toward the Keys, has utility crews already laboring — mostly in South Florida — with more than 76,000 customers in the dark Saturday afternoon.
“We are already responding to Hurricane Irma with the largest pre-storm restoration workforce ever assembled, not just in our company’s history, but in U.S. history,” Florida Power & Light President and CEO Eric Silagy said in a prepared statement. “We have an army of more than 16,000 hardworking men and women committed to restoring power as the first bands of severe weather impact our service territory, and they will work continuously before, during and after the storm clears until all customers have power again.”
Florida Power & Light has projected that more than 80 percent of its 10 million customers across Florida — 4.1 million of its 5 million customer accounts — may experience power outages as the storm crosses the state.
Duke Energy Florida is also anticipating “significant, widespread power outages” for its 1.8 million customers in Florida.
Duke said it has about 7,000 line workers, tree professionals and damage-assessment crews set up for Irma, with additional assistance on the way from the Midwest.
With weather deteriorating in South Florida, major hurricane-force winds are expected to be over the Florida Keys at daybreak Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
At 5 p.m. Saturday, Irma was starting to move away from the northern Cuba coast, carrying 125 mph maximum sustained winds, and was about 175 miles southeast of Key West. The storm, which earlier in the week was barreling through the Caribbean with 185 mph winds, is expected to strengthen again as it crosses to the Florida peninsula, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane warnings are in place for the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay, and reach to Fernandina Beach on the East Coast and to Indian Pass — in Gulf County southwest of Tallahassee — along the Gulf Coast.
“If you have been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now,” Gov. Rick Scott warned Saturday while at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “This is your last chance to make a good decision.”
Scott has been crisscrossing the state this week telling people to prepare and not delay evacuation plans as the state struggled to keep up with water and fuel demands created by people rushing to prepare for the storm.
Public schools, state colleges and universities and state government offices have been closed for Monday. The state Senate extended its closure to Tuesday.
“South Florida is already experiencing tropical storm force winds and dangerous seas,” Scott said. “The center (of the storm) is getting better organized and will intensify as it approaches Florida.”
Silagy advised FPL customers not to become complacent because Irma’s predicted track has shifted west.
“This is a deadly and devastating hurricane, and every part of Florida will feel the wrath of this storm,” Silagy said. “Florida’s peninsula is only approximately 160 miles wide and this storm stretches more than 300 miles, so we expect storm surge and tropical storm-force winds or higher across our entire service territory.”
More than 6.5 million people have been told to evacuate. Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, issued a voluntary countywide evacuation order on Saturday.
By Saturday evening, more than 70,000 people were in 385 shelters opened throughout Florida.
The Florida Department of Transportation on Saturday started to close turnpike service plazas in South Florida, with the Fort Pierce and Fort Drum plazas shutting down Saturday night.
Among other state preparations:
— The Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement is staging in Orlando to conduct damage assessment and search-and-rescue missions in the Florida Keys when the storm passes.
— The Florida Forest Service has reached out to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi for additional post-storm crews to help clear roads and remove debris.
— The Division of Animal Industry is coordinating with neighboring states and federal officials to have veterinary teams on standby for after the storm.