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Irma Shifts Again, Surge Warning Issued For Tampa Bay

The National Hurricane Center says Hurricane Irma has strengthened back into a Category 5 storm, as officials warned more than 5 million people that time was running out Friday and ordered them to evacuate ahead of the deadly hurricane as it followed a path that could take it from one end of the state to the other.

Forecasters also extended hurricane and storm surge warnings and watches farther north to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay.

By late Friday, Irma had regained Category 5 strength with winds of 160 mph. Forecasters expect the storm to be near the Florida Keys on Sunday morning and approach the state's southwest coast by that afternoon.

Earlier in the day, counties around the Tampa Bay area began evacuating residents as the state braced for what could be a catastrophic hit from Hurricane Irma.

At 11 p.m. Friday, the center said Irma made landfall on the Camaguey Archipelago of Cuba and has maximum sustained winds of 160 mph.

The hurricane is about 300 miles from Miami and moving about 13 mph toward the west.

Forecasters adjusted the storm's potential track more toward the west coast of Florida, away from the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, meaning "a less costly, a less deadly storm," University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said.

Nevertheless, forecasters warned that its hurricane-force winds were so wide they could reach from coast to coast, testing the nation's third-largest state, which has undergone rapid development and more stringent hurricane-proof building codes in the last decade or so.

"This is a storm that will kill you if you don't get out of the way," National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said. "Everybody's going to feel this one."

The storm killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean and left thousands homeless as it devastated small islands in its path.

Officials in Pinellas and Hernando counties and the city of Tampa ordered mandatory evacuations of all residents living in coastal areas.  

Hillsborough, Pasco and Sarasota counties began volunteer evacuations depending on resident’s needs and where they live.

The Pinellas, Hernando and Tampa evacuations include anyone who lives in Zone A, which includes low-lying and coastal areas that are vulnerable to storm surge.  Hernando also included residents who live in Zone B in the mandatory evacuation orders.

The evacuation order in Pinellas includes residents with special needs and those who live in mobile homes in any part of the county. Pinellas residents have until 8 a.m. Sunday to leave.

Pinellas County has opened seven shelters to accommodate an estimated 160,000 residents who will be affected by the order.

Emergency Management Director Sally Bishop reminded people that when they're told to evacuate, they don't need to leave the state, they just need to go to a safer area nearby.

"They don’t need to go hundreds of miles, they only need to go tens of miles. We have a lot of non-evacuation areas in this county, we also have a lot of higher evacuation levels that won’t be impacted,” Bishop said. “There's nothing that keeps them from just going over the bridge or north and staying within the region with family or friends, they have those options.”

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said people who decide to stay despite being under mandatory evacuation orders will not be arrested -- but law enforcement won't be able to help them during the storm.

"People control their own fate and if they make that decision, then they own it,” he said. “We will do whatever we can for them to a point but there could reach a point where we are not able to go out there, we're not able to help them, we're not able to rescue them.”

Hillsborough County began voluntary evacuations for residents in Zone A who are registered for special-needs shelters, officials said.  

Pasco County Government is recommending voluntary evacuation for residents who live in some areas west of U.S. 19, special needs residents, anyone who lives in a manufactured home, mobile home, or RV, and anyone who lives in a low-lying area or an area prone to flooding.

Pasco opened fifteen shelters for residents.

In Sarasota County, a local state of emergency was issued and voluntary evacuations for Zone A began.

When counties mandate evacuations, they will do it by zones A through E. Hillsborough commissioners said they will decide Friday evening if residents in zones B and C will need to evacuate starting Saturday morning.

Evacuation zones are not the same as FEMA flood zone designations.

You can find a list of shelters for Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee Counties here. 

Gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars drove in the southbound lanes.

"We're getting out of this state," said Manny Zuniga, who left his home in Miami at midnight Thursday to avoid the gridlock. "Irma is going to take all of Florida."

Despite driving overnight, he still took 12 hours to reach Orlando — a trip that normally takes four hours. From there, he and his wife, two children, two dogs and a ferret were headed to Arkansas.

In one of the country's largest evacuations, about 5.6 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state's population — were ordered to evacuate and another 540,000 were told to leave the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said people fleeing could drive slowly in the shoulder lane on highways. He hasn't reversed the southbound lanes because he said they were needed to deliver gas and supplies.

"If you are planning to leave and do not leave tonight, you will have to ride out this extremely dangerous storm at your own risk," Scott said.

Scott also urged people in coastal and low-lying areas to heed evacuation orders. 

Several small, poor communities around Lake Okeechobee in the south-central part of Florida were added to the evacuation list because the lake may overflow — but the governor said engineers expect the protective dike to hold up. Many people in the area said they wouldn't leave because they either had no transportation or nowhere to go.

Hurricane Irma has also forced next week’s series between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays to be moved to Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

The Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday series was set to be played in St. Petersburg, Florida. But concerns over where Irma will hit, and what it will do to the Tampa Bay area, prompted officials to decide that moving the series was best.

Playing at other neutral sites, like the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards and the Chicago White Sox’ Guaranteed Rate Field, was considered. But hotel availability was tough in both series, so the series heads to New York — where only the Rays will need lodging.

The Rays played host to a series between Houston and Texas last month, after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and forced changes there.

Florida’s major theme parks are planning to close as Hurricane Irma approaches the state.

SeaWorld officials announced Friday that their Orlando park will be closed from Saturday to Monday. The same goes for Busch Gardens in Tampa, which SeaWorld also owns.

Officials at Walt Disney World in Orlando say its parks will close on Saturday afternoon and remain closed through Monday.

Universal Orlando announced on its website that it will close at 7 p.m. Saturday and will remain closed through Monday. Officials said they anticipate reopening on Tuesday.

Last October, the theme parks also closed down for Hurricane Matthew, which skirted Florida’s southeast coast.

Officials across Florida, meanwhile, opened shelters for people who chose not to leave town. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he planned for enough space to hold 100,000 people before the storm arrives, although most shelters were only beginning to fill on Friday.

"You don't have to go a long way. You can go to a shelter in your county," Scott said of the evacuations. "This storm is powerful and deadly. We are running out of time."

The last major hurricane — a storm with winds of at least 111 mph — to hit Florida was Wilma in 2005. Its eye cut through the state's southern third as it packed winds of 120 mph. Five people died. Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida as a Category 5 storm in 1992 and at the time was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history with damages of $26.5 billion.

Andrew also revealed how lax building codes had become in the country's most storm-prone state, and Florida began requiring sturdier construction. Now, experts say a monstrously strong Irma could become the most serious test of Florida's storm-worthiness since then.

Andrew razed Miami's suburbs with winds topping 165 mph, damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. Almost all mobile homes in its path were obliterated. The damage totaled $26 billion in Florida's most-populous areas. At least 40 people were killed in Florida.

CoreLogic, a consultant to insurers, estimated that almost 8.5 million Florida homes or commercial properties were at extreme, very high or high risk of wind damage from Irma.

Police in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Davie said a 57-year-old man who had been hired to install hurricane shutters Thursday morning died after falling about 15 feet from a ladder and hitting his head on a pool deck. The man's name wasn't immediately released.

Forecasters predicted a storm surge of 8 to 12 feet above ground level along Florida's southwest coast and in the Keys. As much as a foot of rain could fall across the state, with isolated spots receiving 20 inches.

With winds that peaked at 185 mph, Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose has almost hit Category 5 strength, with tops winds of 155 mph. Jose is about 265 miles east-southeast of the northern Leeward Islands.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katia is making landfall north of Tecolutla, Mexico. Katia is still a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 mph. Forecasters expect the hurricane to weaken quickly over the next 24 hours.

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