Hurricane Irma will 'devastate' part of US: Fema chief


Inmate trustees from the Brevard County Jail work to fill and load sandbags for residents as people in the area prepare ahead of Hurricane Irma on Sept 7, 2017 in Meritt Island, Florida.
Inmate trustees from the Brevard County Jail work to fill and load sandbags for residents as people in the area prepare ahead of Hurricane Irma on Sept 7, 2017 in Meritt Island, Florida.PHOTO: AFP
Brock Long greets US President Donald Trump on his arrival in Texas after Hurricane Harvey.
Brock Long greets US President Donald Trump on his arrival in Texas after Hurricane Harvey.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Anticipating that Hurricane Irma will "devastate" part of the United States, US officials were preparing a massive response to the storm, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) said on Friday (Sept 8).

With Irma set to hit Florida as early as Saturday night, parts of Florida was expected to lose electricity for days, if not longer, and more than 100,000 people may need shelter, Fema administrator Brock Long warned at a news conference.

"Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States in either Florida or some of the southeastern states," Long said.

Irma was a Category 5 hurricane, the most dangerous measure by the National Hurricane Centre, before being downgraded to Category 4 early on Friday after pummelling islands in the Caribbean.

The United States has experienced only three Category 5 storms since 1851 and Irma is far larger than the last one to hit the United States in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, according to Long.

He warned people not to ignore evacuation orders.

"They need to get out and listen and heed the warnings," Long said.

Officials have thousands of personnel ready to respond and millions of meals and litres of water in place nearby, Long said.

The National Weather Service said that Friday was the last day to evacuate before winds would start to reach unsafe speeds in Florida.

Airlines added extra flights from Florida on Thursday before announcing plans to halt service from some southern Florida airports starting Friday afternoon.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price called Irma a "remarkably dangerous storm and the window to get yourself in the right spot... is closing rapidly."

Price said the main hospital in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands was closed after being damaged by Irma, and critically ill patients were being evacuated to Puerto Rico or other islands.

On Friday, the US House of Representatives voted 316-90 to approve a measure to more than double funding to US$15.25 billion (S$20.4 billion) for Fema and local block grants to handle natural disasters after the Senate passed the measure on Thursday, 80-17.

Fema's disaster assistance fund could have run out of money on Friday without action. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure on Friday.

The measure also extends the life of the National Flood Insurance Programme through Dec 5. It had been set to expire Sept 30.