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Evacuees escaped Irma, but uncertain when they can go home

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/09/2017 Bart Jansen
Waves crash over a seawall from Biscayne Bay as Hurricane Irma passes by Sept. 10, 2017, in Miami. © Wilfredo Lee, AP Waves crash over a seawall from Biscayne Bay as Hurricane Irma passes by Sept. 10, 2017, in Miami.

Floridians who evacuated ahead of Hurricane Irma could have a tough time returning home when the wrath of the storm ends, including those who fled as far away as Atlanta. 

The ferocity and size of the hurricane left uncertain when people will be able to drive or fly back. Highways became parking lots as nearly 7 million people were warned to evacuate, including 6.4 million in Florida. Emergency management officials told residents to store three days of food and water because it might take that long.

Hurricane Irma has led to more than 12,500 cancelled flights at counting, closed airports throughout Florida, halted a weekend of ocean cruises and closed Disney resorts near Orlando.

As the storm moves north, the world's busiest airport in Atlanta could have flights disrupted as early as Monday.

The Category 4 hurricane with 130 mph winds made landfall Sunday farther west than initially forecast, inundating the Florida Keys and aiming for the west coast of the peninsula.

But with Irma's counter-clockwise winds thrashing Florida's east coast, airports from Miami to Jacksonville closed Saturday evening. South Florida airports can't say yet when they'll reopen.

“The worst is yet to come for southeast Florida,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told CNN on Sunday as he hunkered down with his family inside his boarded-up Miami home. “I know people who went to Georgia and are now figuring out how to get out of Georgia because it’s headed there.”

As 100 mph winds pelted Miami early Sunday, even the Miami-Dade Police Department tweeted that it stopped responding to calls for the safety of its officers.

In Miami, the airport said all flights “have been canceled until further notice.” Fort Lauderdale's airport, which said the “strongest winds and heaviest rain” are expected Sunday, likewise said “there is no scheduled reopening.”

Airlines have offered to waive bag fees and fees to change flights across the southeast. United Airlines, for example, waived change fees for flights through Sept. 17 at 10 airports from Georgia to North Carolina, and through Sept. 30 for dozens of airports across Florida and the Caribbean.

At the Orlando airport, workers tied down jet bridges and covered computer equipment inside the terminal with plastic. Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld all closed Saturday through at least Monday.

“Orlando International will resume operations as quickly as possible,” said Phil Brown, executive director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. “Once the weather allows our damage assessment teams to inspect the facilities and infrastructure, we will begin the recovery process to make sure Orlando International is once again safe and secure for the travelling public.”

Ocean cruises from Florida were also canceled Friday through Monday. The port at Miami and Port Canaveral are the two busiest cruise ports in the world, moving nearly 10 million passengers a year between them, and Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades, is the world's third busiest cruise port. 

By 4 p.m. Sunday, airlines cancelled 12,587 flights to or from Florida or the Caribbean because of Irma through Tuesday, according to FlightAware.com, an online tracking service. Of those, 8,970 flights were to or from Florida airports.

According to FlightAware, airports are projected to reopen:

►Miami on Monday at 6 a.m.

►Orlando International on Monday at 2 p.m.

►Sarasota on Monday at 3 p.m.

►St. Petersburg on Monday at 7 p.m.

►Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday at 12 p.m.

►Naples on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

►Orlando Sanford on Tuesday at 6:30 a.m.

►Melbourne on Tuesday at 7:59 p.m.

►Key West on Wednesday at 7 a.m.

“As the airports reopen, it will take time for the airlines to recoup their schedules,” according to Sara Orsi at FlightAware. “Airline and airport employees who evacuated during the storm must re-mobilize and any damage to facilities will need to be addressed.”

Atlanta on Sunday was under a tropical storm watch, meaning peak winds could reach 30 to 40 mph, with gusts up to 55 mph, in the next day.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with more than 100 million passengers a year, anticipates the storm to begin affecting flights early Monday.

Delta Air Lines, which is based in Atlanta, offered waivers for ticketed passengers to change flights with three dozen destinations through Sept. 17 for flights affected by Irma. The airline suggested travelers look for other hubs in planning their trips.

 

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