Miami-Dade planning first major evacuation in 12 years ahead of Hurricane Irma

Miami-Dade County plans to order evacuations for Miami Beach and much of the mainland coast in advance of Hurricane Irma’s menacing track toward South Florida.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said to expect evacuation orders late Wednesday or early Thursday, but emergency officials who report to him are already assuming hundreds of thousands of residents will be asked to leave their homes in the coming days out of fears of historic coastal flooding from Irma.

“This is a powerful storm which poses a serious threat to our area. We will be taking some extraordinary actions to ensure that the residents of Miami-Dade County are safe,” Gimenez said at an afternoon press briefing Tuesday. “I would rather inconvenience our residents on this occasion than suffer any unnecessary loss of life if we are hit by Hurricane Irma.”

The planned instructions to flee the county’s A and B evacuation zones — A covers coastal areas in southern Dade, Key Biscayne and a pocket north of Miami, while B encompasses Brickell Avenue, more inland areas and Miami Beach and other cities along the ocean — represents the most dramatic example of Miami-Dade’s efforts to clear out in advance of a hurricane that reached Category 5 status on Tuesday. Miami-Dade’s schools chief canceled classes Thursday and Friday, and most governments and colleges announced similar shutdown plans for an already shortened holiday week.

Miami-Dade plans to open shelters Wednesday as schools close. County officials said an evacuation order does not put residents in legal jeopardy if they remain in place during a storm, but they warned emergency services may not be available within the zones as the weather deteriorates. The evacuation zones are based on expected storm surge for various hurricane models, and the county triggers the evacuation when at least 18 inches of sea water is possible.

“It’s a life-safety issue,” said Cathie Perkins, manager of the planning bureau for Miami-Dade’s Emergency Management division. “They’re putting their lives in danger.”

With Gimenez stopping short of calling for the evacuations, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine called his own press conference Tuesday to urge city residents to leave as soon as possible. “I’m personally recommending to our residents that you consider leaving the city of Miami Beach in advance of the evacuation order that we anticipate will be coming from the county mayor,” Levine said.

About 420,000 people live in the A and B zones, according to county statistics. Miami-Dade last ordered those evacuated ahead of Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

“We need to be ahead of this,” Gimenez said, “and not behind it.”

Triggering an evacuation of Zone B also strikes at the heart of Miami-Dade’s hotel industry, with Miami Beach home to the county’s largest concentration of hotel rooms. Gimenez on Tuesday addressed his remarks to visitors, urging tourists to consider “cutting your vacations short.”

Miami-Dade’s first steps toward a rare evacuation protocol followed Monroe County on Tuesday ordering tourists and then residents to leave the island chain. Residents were instructed to begin leaving the Keys at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, followed by residents at 7 p.m. With shelters closed in the Keys for hurricanes that hit Category 3 or higher, Keys residents must head for mainland facilities in Miami-Dade. The Key West airport plans to close Wednesday night.

The first wave of evacuations in Miami-Dade began Tuesday, as county workers began contacting about 2,000 people with medical conditions requiring electricity or who otherwise could not weather extended time without power. Gimenez urged residents to have three days of food, water and other supplies ready for a storm that Florida Power & Light warned could cause “prolonged outages” across the state.

Perkins said Miami-Dade is working on the assumption that the county will order evacuations of the A and B zones. She said that Miami-Dade is also considering at least partial evacuations in Zone C, which sits even farther away from the coast.

Much of Florida is endangered by Irma’s various projected paths, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott suspended tolls across the state as of 5 p.m. Tuesday to make it easier and more affordable for people to both prepare for the storm, and flee it. The order covers state-controlled highways, including the Dolphin Expressway and other roads run by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

Miami-Dade County government will be closed Thursday and Friday, and the County Commission scrapped a planned preliminary vote on the 2018 budget on Thursday evening. Closures of criminal and civil courts on Thursday and Friday is forcing dozens of proceedings to be rescheduled, including a major racketeering trial.

Suspects will still make their first appearance at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building’s bond court within a day of their arrest, but only if the weather permits. Even in good weather, defendants always appear via closed-circuit TV from the chapel of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Facility, about eight miles west of the courthouse.

With stores across South Florida seeing runs on water and other storm supplies starting on Monday, the announced school and government closures allow more time for preparation.

Miami-Dade’s after-school activities and adult-education classes after 4:05 p.m. are canceled for Wednesday but administrators said parents should pick up their children at the normal times for after-school care programs. Only essential school district personnel will be asked to work on Thursday and Friday.

Broward County also canceled classes Thursday and Friday, as did Miami-Dade College. Some institutions, including the University of Miami and Florida International University, opted to add an extra buffer between the storm and closed on Wednesday.

“This is a storm that cannot and should not be ignored,” Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said at a press briefing. “We have decided to err on the side of caution.”

Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas, Kyra Gurney, Alex Harris and David Ovalle contributed to this report.