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Hurricane Irma Heads Toward Miami As Forecasters Downgrade Storm To Category 4


The Southeast is bracing for Hurricane Irma. Millions of people could be affected. The storm is expected to hit Florida this weekend, and Miami is preparing for the worst. Their flights have been canceled. Residents of low-lying areas have been ordered to evacuate. And those who aren't leaving are boarding up windows and moving their cars to higher ground.

NPR's Jon Hamilton is in Coconut Grove, a nearby coastal community that is vulnerable to flooding. And, Jon, is there anybody still in Coconut Grove?

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Well, there are just a few. I'm standing in the heart of the downtown. This is a place that is usually bustling. And right now I see no cars moving. There are a few parked. There's one bar that is open and a few people are hanging out there, but even they have said that they plan to leave before the hurricane gets here. And I should say a lot of the - Miami is like this. When we came in from the airport, at the airport they were urging people to take buses to shelters. As we drove in, the roads were empty. There were a couple of cars on the road that had plywood strapped to the roof.

And when we got to Coconut Grove, I talked to a guy named Ray Lopez who lives here. And he said this is an area that is so affected. Just a couple of weeks ago during a tropical storm there were people paddleboarding in the streets. So he's going to stay with some relatives, he said. Here's what he had to say.

RAY LOPEZ: I was trying to kind of brush it off since last week. And, you know, a few days ago I was like, you know, this is a serious thing. You know, 'cause usually - we've been so fortunate over the past couple of years - you'll have a storm coming your way and it'll somehow just divert or it'll just die off at sea or something like that. But this is coming right for us. There's nothing else we can do. And it's a fairly serious thing.

SIEGEL: A fairly serious thing. How serious, Jon?

HAMILTON: I would say very. The forecaster - the forecasters over at the National Hurricane Center who are not really given to hyperbole have been throwing around this term catastrophic a lot. I mean, that's pretty rare. And there's reason for it. Right now or at last sighting, the winds were still about 150 miles an hour. They think they could get 20 inches of rain in some places. You could have a storm surge of up to 12 feet above usual tide levels in some places. So there is a huge potential for lots of wind damage followed by lots of water damage.

SIEGEL: Now, you are pretty near where Hurricane Andrew caused enormous damage 25 years ago. And that's still a vivid memory, I'm sure, for anyone who went through it. Do we know how these two storms compare?

HAMILTON: Well, we don't yet. But clearly they are each scary in their own way. I mean, Andrew hit as a Category 5, and it's quite likely that Irma will not. It might be slightly less than that. Andrew had winds of more than 160 miles per hour. And the thing is that Irma is way bigger than Andrew was. Andrew was a relatively small storm. Irma is enormous. It is - when you look at it on satellite imagery, it is as wide as the entire Florida peninsula. And when you look at it from above like that, it looks like this huge, like, lawnmower blade that is just getting ready to mow its way up the state.

So I was down at the marina here. I was curious about the hurricane comparison, too. And I talked to a guy named Bill Dittrich. He lives on his boat. And he looked like a guy who's seen just about everything. You know, he's got the deep tan. He's in flip-flops, got this tie-dye T-shirt. And he had just finished stashing his boat, like, way deep in the mangroves. And he has really graphic memories of what Coconut Grove looked like after Andrew hit. Here's what he told me.

BILL DITTRICH: It was all - it was terrible. Everything was ripped up. Trees were down. Nothing on the trees, no leaves. Everything was denude. It was kind of scary, creepy a little bit. We do line-of-sight navigation in the shrimping business. But couldn't tell where you were by - 'cause none of the trees had leaves.

SIEGEL: Wow, memories of 1992. When exactly is Irma expected to arrive?

HAMILTON: Well, the eye of the hurricane looks like it's going to get here either late Saturday or early Sunday. But that's really pretty misleading because this storm is so big that the winds are going to start picking up tomorrow morning. And by tomorrow afternoon, you really should probably be somewhere safe already. It's going to be too late to start heading for shelter.

SIEGEL: And there are two more hurricanes in the region.

HAMILTON: There are. There is Hurricane Katia in the Gulf that's heading toward Mexico shortly, and then there's Jose, which is another major hurricane out in the Atlantic. And the last time I looked, it had winds of 150 miles an hour. And it's probably not going to hit the U.S., but it could hit some of the same Caribbean islands that are still recovering from Irma. So I guess stay tuned.

SIEGEL: NPR's Jon Hamilton in Coconut Grove, Fla. Jon, thanks.

HAMILTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.