Irma: Florida eyes mandatory evacuation plans as residents brace for 'potentially catastrophic' storm

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Sept 5 (Reuters) - Emergency management officials across South Florida hastened disaster preparations on Tuesday in anticipation of Hurricane Irma's expected weekend arrival on the U.S. mainland with possibly greater force than Hurricane Harvey unleashed on Texas.

Irma, a Category 5 storm - the highest hurricane ranking used by U.S. forecasters - neared the Caribbean's northern Leeward Islands, east of Puerto Rico, late on Tuesday with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (300 km/h).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami forecast the storm would make landfall in Florida on Saturday, although Irma's precise trajectory remained to be seen.

RELATED: Preparing for Hurricane Irma

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Preparing for Hurricane Irma
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Preparing for Hurricane Irma
YEMASSEE, SC - SEPTEMBER 08: Northbound lanes of I-95 near the Georgia-South Carolina border are empty as northbound lanes are packed as pepole evacuate ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma September 8, 2017 in Yemassee, South Carolina. Florida appears to be in the path of the hurricane which may come ashore at category 4. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 05: Stan Glass, of St. Petersburg, fills four 5-gallon fuel tanks with gasoline for his boat should he have to evacuate by boat as residents in the area prepare ahead of Hurricane Irma on September 05, 2017 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) has reported that Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm as it crosses into the Caribbean and is expected to move on towards Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
A woman looks at empty shelves that are normally filled with bottles of water after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People buy materials at a hardware store after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
As Hurrcane Irma approaches Florida September 8, 2017 shoppers in Port St. John, near Kennedy Space Center, find almost empty shelves. Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew, which killed 65 people in 1992, Florida's governor said all of the state's 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate. / AFP PHOTO / BRUCE WEAVER (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
People buy materials at a hardware store after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Workers put boats on dry docks in preparation, as Hurricane Irma, barreling towards the Caribbean and the southern United States, was upgraded to a Category 4 storm, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Customers walk near empty shelves that are normally filled with bottles of water after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People buy materials at a hardware store after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People buy material at a hardware store after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Workers put boats on dry docks in preparation, as Hurricane Irma, barreling towards the Caribbean and the southern United States, was upgraded to a Category 4 storm, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Hurricane Irma, a record Category 5 storm, churns across the Atlantic Ocean on a collision course with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, is shown in this NASA GOES satellite image taken at 1715 EDT (2215 GMT) on September 5, 2017. Courtesy NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
Members of the Civil Defense prepare their gear ahead of Hurricane Irma, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas
A member of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) monitors the trajectory of Hurricane Irma in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas
A member of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) monitors the trajectory of Hurricane Irma in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas
Shoppers in a Home Depot store wait for plywood in the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami, Florida, September 5, 2017. Residents are preparing for the approach of Hurricane Irma. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Men cover the windows of a auto parts store in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A man uses a cable to secure the roof of his home in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Men cover the window of a house in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Empty boxes of produce at Costco as customers purchased all the product on September 5, 2017 in Miami. The monster hurricane coming on the heels of Harvey, which struck Texas and Louisiana late last month, is expected to hit a string of Caribbean islands including Guadeloupe late Tuesday before heading to Haiti and Florida. The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Irma had strengthened to the most powerful Category Five, packing winds of 180 miles (280 kilometers) per hour. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Shoppers at Costco buying essentials in preparation for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in North Miami. The monster hurricane coming on the heels of Harvey, which struck Texas and Louisiana late last month, is expected to hit a string of Caribbean islands including Guadeloupe late Tuesday before heading to Haiti and Florida. The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Irma had strengthened to the most powerful Category Five, packing winds of 180 miles (280 kilometers) per hour. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Costco ran out of water as people shop to prepare for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in North Miami. The monster hurricane coming on the heels of Harvey, which struck Texas and Louisiana late last month, is expected to hit a string of Caribbean islands including Guadeloupe late Tuesday before heading to Haiti and Florida. The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Irma had strengthened to the most powerful Category Five, packing winds of 180 miles (280 kilometers) per hour. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Very long checkout lines at Costco as some people waited up to 8 hours to check in, shop and leave in preparation for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in North Miami. The monster hurricane coming on the heels of Harvey, which struck Texas and Louisiana late last month, is expected to hit a string of Caribbean islands including Guadeloupe late Tuesday before heading to Haiti and Florida. The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Irma had strengthened to the most powerful Category Five, packing winds of 180 miles (280 kilometers) per hour. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman takes a photo of a boarded up business in advance of Hurricane Irma's expected arrival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
YEMASSEE, SC - SEPTEMBER 08: Northbound lanes of I-95 near the Georgia-South Carolina border are empty as northbound lanes are packed as pepole evacuate ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma September 8, 2017 in Yemassee, South Carolina. Florida appears to be in the path of the hurricane which may come ashore at category 4. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
As Hurrcane Irma approaches Florida September 8, 2017 residents of Titusville, near Kennedy Space Center, have arleady exhausted the lumber yards of plywood used to board up windows. Irma is expected to arrive in the area Sunday afternoon, September 10th. Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew, which killed 65 people in 1992, Florida's governor said all of the state's 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate. / AFP PHOTO / BRUCE WEAVER (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
As Hurrcane Irma approaches Florida September 8, 2017 residents of Titusville, near Kennedy Space Center, have stop for last minute items and fuel. Gas prices had already been raised because of Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas, making gasoline cost more per gallon than diesel fuel. Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew, which killed 65 people in 1992, Florida's governor said all of the state's 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate. / AFP PHOTO / BRUCE WEAVER (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
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Forecasters described the storm as "potentially catastrophic." Irma ranks as one of the five most powerful Atlantic hurricanes during the past 80 years and is the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded outside the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, the NHC said.

Mindful of the devastation wrought by Harvey days ago along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, Florida officials were taking no chances.

"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."

Authorities in the Florida Keys, the popular resort archipelago stretching from the southern tip of the state's mainland peninsula, called for a mandatory evacuation of the islands' visitors, starting at sunrise on Wednesday.

Roman Gastesi, administrator of Monroe County, which includes the Keys, said a mandatory evacuation of residents there was likely at some point.

EMERGENCY DECLARATION

Residents of low-lying areas in densely populated Miami-Dade County to the north were urged to move to higher ground by Wednesday as a precaution against coastal storm surges.

Public schools throughout South Florida were to be closed ahead of the storm, starting with Monroe and neighboring Lee County on Wednesday and Miami-Dade and several others districts beginning on Thursday.

"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."

U.S. President Donald Trump, acting at the request of Governor Rick Scott, approved an emergency declaration on Tuesday mobilizing federal disaster relief efforts in Florida ahead of Irma's arrival, the White House said.

Scott has also directed all 7,000 of the state's National Guard troops to report for duty Friday morning, saying additional Guard members would be activated as needed beforehand.

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.

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25 PHOTOS
Harvey victims return home
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Harvey victims return home
Erlind Trigo and her niece Miriam weep as they look at family photographs which they salvaged from their home in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A man disposes of drywall while salvaging through belongings from his family home in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
George Diaz disposes of furniture while salvaging through belongings from his family home in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Mariah Castillo watches her mother Roxanne Castillo kiss her mother Dolores Hedger, 68, while salvaging through their family home in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Chairs are seen drying outside of a pentecostal church where local residents prepare for Sunday service after tropical storm Harvey in east Houston, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Bible and hymn books that were damaged by tropical storm Harvey are seen outside a Baptist church in Dickinson, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A volunteer helps clean up the damage from a Lutheran church in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Dickinson, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A volunteer helps clean up the damage from a Lutheran church in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Dickinson, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A home insurance inspector conducts an assessment of damages on the roof of a house after tropical storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Melissa Ramirez (C) struggles against the current flowing down a flooded street helped by Edward Ramirez (L) and Cody Collinsworth as she tried to return to her home for the first time since Harvey floodwaters arrived in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Nancy McBride collects items from her flooded kitchen as she returned to her home for the first time since Harvey floodwaters arrived in Houston, Texas September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Nancy McBride's half eaten supper still sits on the table since she evacuated in haste before Harvey floodwaters arrived in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Nancy McBride's cat looks out from an air hole punched in a tub after the cat was found in her garage when McBride came home for the first time since Harvey floodwaters arrived in Houston, Texas September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Patrice Laporte measures how much of the Harvey floodwaters have gone down at his house in Houston, Texas September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
The high water mark is visible on a house surrounded Harvey floodwaters in Houston, Texas September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A girl carries toys she collected from a trash pile of Hurricane Harvey flood damage in southwestern Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
People sort through belongings found in Hurricane Harvey flood damage in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A volunteer from Texas A&M University helps to clean up flood damage in the house of an alumnus in southwestern Houston, Texas September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Shirts are see drying outside of a trailer house damaged by tropical storm Harvey in East Houston, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
People sort through belongings found in Hurricane Harvey flood damage in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Rogelio Salina takes as break as he helps a neighbor to clean a house damaged by Tropical Storm Harvey in East Houston, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A man tears out Hurricane Harvey flood damage from a home in southwestern Houston, Texas, U.S. September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Vince Ware moves his sofas onto the sidewalk from his house which was left flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Daniel Vasquez removes a damaged carpet after Tropical Storm Harvey flooded his home in east Houston, Texas, U.S. September 3, 2017. Vasquez and his family, originally from El Salvador, spent six days at the shelter after being airlifted by rescue helicopter. Vasquez, a truck driver who supports a family of five, did not hold flood insurance. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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"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, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

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