Hurricane Irma: Canadians face choice between hunkering down, fleeing Florida – National


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TORONTO – Canadians who fled to Florida in search of warmer climes are bracing for the worst as a major hurricane descends on their new home state.

LIVE UPDATES: Tracking Hurricane Irma’s path

Some hunkered down with supplies while some fled in fear as Hurricane Irma bore down. The Category 3 storm is expected to gain strength as it sweeps across the water from Cuba to Florida, where it is expected to wreak havoc across the state starting Sunday.

WATCH: Irma bringing ‘deadly, deadly, deadly’ storm surge up to 4.5m high

Reports of Irma’s pending impact have been circulating for days, causing anxiety to soar among residents uncertain whether to heed mandatory evacuation orders or try to ride out the storm.

For Toronto-born Gavin Wolpert, the issue was moot. He, his wife and three children booked flights to New York City early in the week, but the increasingly dire warnings prompted them to move up their plans to flee to safety.

They rented a car and slipped out of their home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., mere hours before the roads clogged with other residents with similar plans.

READ MORE: Hurricane Irma: What has happened and what is coming

From there, they drove to Charlotte, N.C., where they eventually caught a plane to New York City and relative safety.

WATCH: Reporter captures Miami Beach man having ‘zen’ moment at Hurricane Irma approaches

Wolpert said his experiences with previous, weaker hurricanes made it clear to him that he and his family needed to get out.

“I was scared last time. My heart couldn’t take being here for another one,” Wolpert said in a telephone interview. “Even though I trust my house’s structure, there’s noise, and it’s really scary.”

Wolpert said the experience of past hurricanes sounded like a battering ram clobbering his concrete home, adding he felt it was best not to expose his three children under the age of 10 to potential alarm.

READ MORE: Hurricane Irma: Watch as ‘Hurricane Hunters’ fly into eye of storm

Even as forecasters downgraded Irma’s severity Saturday, all anticipated the storm would be among the most severe to hit Florida in decades.

The hurricane was originally expected to hit the Miami area, but a westward shift Saturday saw it bearing down on Tampa with winds of up to 201 kilometres per hour.

Irma was classified as a Category 3 hurricane, but forecasters expect it to strengthen as it barrels toward the area. The storm has left more than 20 people dead in its wake across the Caribbean, ravaging such resort islands as St. Maarten, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Antigua.

READ MORE: Hurricane Irma now taking aim at Tampa area, Florida’s Gulf Coast

Meteorologists predicted its centre would blow ashore Sunday in the perilously low-lying Florida Keys, then hit southwestern Florida and move north.

In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the U.S., about 6.3 million people in Florida – more than one-quarter of the state’s population – were warned to leave.

WATCH: Cuba slammed by Hurricane Irma as storm’s eye creeps along northern coast

For at least one Canadian currently calling Florida home, that option was out of the question.

Shruti Patel of Waterloo, Ont., said a scarcity of gas and extreme gridlock on local roads made it impossible to drive to safety.

Instead, she stocked up on food, water, candles and batteries, powered up her electronic devices and prepared to ride the storm out from her apartment in Estero, Fla.

READ MORE: ‘The storm’s here,’ Florida governor says Hurricane Irma assault on state has begun

“We are nervous about this,” she said. “It’s getting windier now. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s not going to be fun.”

Concern also gripped Canadians further away from the centre of the storm.

WATCH: Strong winds from outer bands of Hurricane Irma begin to strike Miami

Safe at their primary home in Prince Edward County, Ont., Bob Ritzer and Vivian MacLean were anxiously wondered about the fate of their ground-floor condominium in Fort Pierce, Fla.

The shift in the storm track may have offered them at least a partial reprieve, but both said they were concerned about potential flood damage in Irma’s wake.

That outcome, Ritzer said, causes anxiety about the future.

“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘I don’t want to lose that investment, and I don’t want to stop going to Florida,”‘ he said. “Either of those two things would be a big dent in our plans. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be significant.”

READ MORE: Hurricane Jose threatens to hit Caribbean islands that Hurricane Irma just destroyed

Global Affairs Canada said it is closely monitoring the progress of Irma, as well as hurricane Jose, which is currently gearing up to hit the same region in the coming days.

Over 9,000 Canadians are confirmed to be in the region, and over 220 have reached out to Global Affairs Canada’s emergency response call centre to request assistance. Global Affairs says it has expanded the number of staff at the call centre in order to deal with the increased call volume.

A number of Canadians are known to be stranded on a resort on Turks & Caicos; the Canadian government says it’s working with local authorities, commercial airlines and tour operators to determine the safest and quickest way to get them out.

WATCH: Irma bringing ‘deadly, deadly, deadly’ storm surge up to 4.5m high

In addition, the government says it’s mobilizing a disaster assessment team to potentially travel to the region to assist in coordinating relief efforts.

Canadians in the Caribbean or Florida who require emergency consular assistance are asked to contact the nearest Canadian government office, or reach out to Global Affairs’ emergency response team at (613) 996-8885 or by email at [email protected]

– With files from The Associated Press and Global News reporter Rahul Kalvapalle

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