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Friday, September 29, 2023

Floridians flee, hunker down as catastrophic storm Dorian nears

Just south of NASA’s famed Kennedy Space Centre, the evacuations have begun, as people wearily keep an eye on their televisions, watching the first footage emerging from the destruction Hurricane Dorian has brought down on the Bahamas.

Hurricane Dorian
FEMA has told Floridians to be prepared for any scenario from Hurricane Dorian

Floridians are worried the catastrophic Category 5 storm – there is no higher category – will come to them next.

Even the best weather forecasters in the world are struggling to predict the path of the massive, slow-moving storm system, which is nearly as large as the entire state.

Experts say it may be one of the strongest to ever make landfall.

Local governments, as far north as the Carolinas, have begun to order mandatory evacuation orders for high risk areas, with officials taking to radio and television to urge people to get out while they still can.

The hurricane is all anyone can talk about.

Local radio hosts are advising their listeners on every aspect of preparation, from boarding up their windows and filling sandbags.

“Pick your fruit; don’t leave them on the tree,’’ urged one expert on the radio in what is known as the Sunshine State, the third most populous state in the U.S.

The hard fruits of avocado and citrus trees, the pride of many in central Florida, become lethal projectiles in the hands of the storm and can be whipped around at more than 250 kilometres an hour.

State officials have been sending convoy after convoy of every type of emergency service vehicle to be strategically placed around key areas, so that they can cut through downed trees and restore power as quickly as possible once the storm passes.

Thousands of members of the National Guard are deployed, their military vehicles roll across the vast highway network connecting the state, heading in the opposite direction of cars, trucks and motorcycles fleeing from areas starting to feel winds and rising water levels.

NASA itself has taken preparations, moving its mobile launch platform inside, to preserve it for future missions to space.

“I’ve already boarded up my house,’’ says Jeff Peters, a 62-year-old construction company manager.

“I will leave in the morning,’’ he says.

He wants one last night in his home, worried about whether he might ever return to the same building.

Major supermarkets have tried to maintain their stocks on shelves, but water, tarpaulins, tape, rope, fuel canisters, baked beans and other useful items are dwindling or long gone.

The hurricane comes during a major U.S. holiday, the Labour Day weekend, dealing a devastating blow to many local businesses.

Hotels were meant to be full of tourists, heading to the space centres, beaches and amusement parks in nearby Orlando.

Disney World and Universal Studios are offering customers a chance to rebook their tickets.

However, as hotels faced cancellations because of the storm, many began to fill up again almost immediately, as locals who live on the coast or in flimsy mobile homes flock to the safety of the sturdy buildings inland.

Other hotels across the coastline have simply had to shut.

Keith Piter, a former soldier, is staying behind to guard one guest house.

“Resilience is not even the word to describe the locals here,’’ he says, brushing off concerns for his safety.

Many people have decided to stay.

Some have gone to their local bars, which broadcast football games and the local weather reports side by side.

People drink and mock nature, fear and bravado mixing with the simple reality that among the working class, many simply have nowhere else to go.

They try to avoid directly watching the televisions as the first footage is broadcast from the Bahamas, showing storm surges and biblical winds rip roofs off buildings and lift cars off the ground at menacing velocity.

Kurt Weller, an engineer who worked for NASA before retiring, and now owns seven homes he rents out, has decided to stay.

“I’ve stayed for every storm for the past 40 years but this one might be worst,’’ the 66-year-old says, as he sips a cocktail and looks out at the beach, his long white hair flapping in the ever increasing winds.

“I told all my renters: Board up or leave.’’

He is fully prepared, with food, water, alcoholic drinks and entertainment.

His own house was built after Hurricane Andrew, which hit in 1992, killing 65 people and causing some $27 billion in damage.

It was constructed to survive hurricanes and the ageing engineer says he will rely on the science that went into the construction of his home, rather than fleeing.

He is sitting outside Grills, one of the oldest restaurants on the Cocoa Beach coastline in this area, and one that has vowed to stay open for business until the last minute.

A sign outside says: “Go away, Dorian.” A band plays inside.

A local firefighter steps in with his family for a last meal.

“After this, I start a 96 or 100-hour shift down at the firehouse.

“I have no idea what will happen,’’ he says.

“After we eat, I’m sending the wife and kids out of here.’’

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