'Leave now': Florida braces itself for Hurricane Irma as millions offered last chance to flee

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Florida residents have been urged to “leave now” as Hurricane Irma hurtles towards the state with those unable to flee ordered to barricade themselves indoors.

Residents and tourists have just hours to leave the Sunshine State after officials ordered 7 million people to evacuate sparking gridlock on the roads and petrol shortages.

Another 540,000 have been asked to flee the eastern part of Georgia, while in South Carolina, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for eight barrier islands including Hilton Head Island, which houses 40,000 residents.

Miami may have been thrown as last minute life-line as the devastating storm’s path veered west as it was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane.

Emergency response: Police and fire crews patrol the US 1 highway out of Florida Keys (EPA)

However, officials warned Irma could strengthen as Florida’s governor Rick Scott told anyone left behind to “leave now”.

He said in a press conference: “The storm is here. Hurricane Irma is now impacting our state.

“If you’ve been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now … not tonight, not in an hour, you need to go right now.”

Gov Scott heeded his own advice as he and his family fled their $15 million mansion on the Gulf Coast as he warned those left behind: “The storm is going faster than you are”.

The stark message came as officials ordered curfews on parts of the state likely to be worst hit. 

Traffic and pedestrian movement in Palm Beach was restricted from 3pm local time while those in Coral Springs had until 8pm to flee.

Anyone living under curfew must remain indoors until 6am on Sunday, local news sites reported.

At least 51,000 residents have hunkered down in approximately 300 hurricane shelters across the state with 15,000 people taking shelter in Palm Beach County and 13,000 in neighbouring Broward County.

“Life-threatening” winds measuring 130mph are expected to batter Florida in the early hours while those on the coast will face 15ft storm surges, The National Hurricane Centre warned.

The giant storm, which was at one point the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the Atlantic, has devastated islands in the Caribbean and killed at least 21 people.

It lashed Cuba on Saturday officials worked to secure Florida’s toxic waste sites.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said officials seemed “generally positive” about the prospects of toxic sites remaining secure but warned they can’t guarantee it 100 per cent.” 

Prime Minister Theresa May said work was taking place with US authorities to ensure British expats and tourists in Florida are protected.

Metropolitan Police officers were rushed to the British Virgin Islands in a bid to bolster units offering emergency response.

Fleeing home: Families head to a shelter at a school in Florida (AP)

One inspector, two sergeants and 14 PCs were today deployed to Barbados to join the British Virgin Islands police force.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Terry said: “Our thoughts at this terrible time are with all the families in the Caribbean who have lost loved ones or whose lives have been decimated by this disaster. 

Devastating winds: The scene in Miami Irma approaches Florida (AP)

“The team, who have all volunteered to assist at this tragic time will be providing support to their colleagues and will help to reassure local people. 

“Following a request made through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for assistance with humanitarian aid the Met immediately responded. The officers, who work in a variety of roles across the Met, will be sworn in as Special Constabulary which allows them to perform and have the same legal powers as their colleagues.”

The National Hurricane Centre says the eye of powerful Hurricane Irma is expected to hit southwest Florida and Tampa sometime Sunday, but the entire state will feel the storm’s effects. 

UK aid: RAF crews load aid onto a Chinook helicopter (PA)

Hurricane Centre spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said today that while Miami won’t get the core of Irma it will still get life-threatening hurricane conditions. 

Irma smashed homes, schools, stores, roads and boats on Wednesday and Thursday as it rolled over including St Martin, St Barts, St Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

Hurricane Irma: Helicopeter footage shows British Virgin Islands devastation

In the ravaged Caribbean islands, rescuers began work to help some of the hardest hit areas. The UK Navy is among the international authorities rushing food, water and troops to the stricken zone.

Those who have died in the storm so far include 11 on St Martin and St Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda. 

Authorities reported looting and gunfire in St. Martin, and a curfew was imposed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The tropical islands face a new threat on the horizon to the east in the form of category four storm Hurricane Jose, bringing 150 mph winds that could punish some of the devastated areas.

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