Florida prepares for Irma, Caribbean braces for big hit

MIAMI, Florida –┬áCategory 5 Hurricane Irma has become one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic, and is threatening to slam into Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with “potentially catastrophic” force on Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

It’s too early to tell whether the storm will affect the US mainland, but current forecast tracks show it could turn toward Florida over the weekend.

People in the Florida Keys are putting up hurricane shutters and wooden boards on homes and businesses as powerful Hurricane Irma approaches the Caribbean on a path that could take it to the U.S. by the weekend.

Trucks are hauling away boats and people are packing in preparation for leaving. Houses in the Keys stand at sea level, with parts of the main road to the Florida mainland going dangerously low.

At a trailer park, Janet Roberts was getting ready Tuesday to head to her daughter’s house in Florida City on the mainland after officials ordered residents and tourists to evacuate the area.

Roberts says she is terrified, saying she lost everything when Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in 1992. In her words, “This has Andrew beat. This is really bad, really, really, really bad.

Tolls suspended

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is ordering the suspension of road tolls across the state as Hurricane Irma continues its ominous move toward the region.

Scott says tolls will be suspended to keep traffic flowing as residents begin to evacuate coastal areas in the potential path of the dangerous Category 5 storm.

The governor adds that tolls will remain suspended “for the duration of the storm’s impacts to Florida.”

Several important Florida highways are toll roads including the Florida Turnpike, which runs from 60 miles north of Orlando all the way to Miami-Dade County.

Army Corps to drain Lake

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water from Florida’s Lake Okeechobee in preparation for Hurricane Irma’s expected arrival in the state this weekend.

Spokesman John Campbell said Tuesday the plan is to drain the lake for three days to drop its current level of almost 14 feet.

The corps says Irma could add a foot of water directly to the lake as it passes and then 3 feet of runoff in the coming weeks. The corps tries to keep the lake below 16 feet and worries about the stability of the Hoover Dike, which surrounds the lake, if it exceeds 18 feet.

Most of current dike was built in the 1960s. It averages 30 feet in height. Failures of the original embankments during hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 killed over 3,000 people when waters flooded neighboring towns. About 40,000 people live nearby today.

The dike has been undergoing a $1.7 billion improvement plan that should be finished in the mid-2020s.

Caribbean braces

Some small Caribbean islands are bracing for a big hit from Hurricane Irma.

Forecasters say those in the path of the Category 5 storm include tiny Anguilla as well as the islands of Barbuda and Anegada. All will be near or directly in the path of Irma.

Anguilla is British Island territory of about 15,000 people. It is a low-lying island known for its smooth sandy beaches.

Authorities are expecting the eye of Irma to pass directly over Anguilla early Wednesday.

Disaster Management agency Director Melissa Meade says Anguilla is expecting the full force of the storms with winds of 185 mph. They also expect storm surge and flooding.

Meade says four shelters are opening on the island Tuesday though people tend to stay with friends and family.