​Canadians in Florida brace for the worst as Hurricane Irma descends

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.

Some hunkered down with supplies while others fled

The skies were dark over Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on September 9, 2017, ahead of Hurricane Irma's expected arrival. Canadians who make Florida their home were bracing for the storm. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

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. 

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. 

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. 

Gasoline was scarce all over South Florida Saturday. (Jonathan Castell/CBC )

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

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 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. 

'It's not going to be fun'

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.

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

About 6.3 million people in Florida were warned to leave, but 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. 

"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. 

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

Officials said they had received calls from about 265 Canadians across numerous Caribbean islands requesting consular help, adding that number is expected to rise as Irma reaches Florida. 

Disaster assessment teams are poised for deployment if necessary, they added. 

"There are many Canadians in Hurricane Irma's path, and our teams are doing their best to ensure that we get in contact and help everyone as necessary," Global Affairs parliamentary secretary Omar Alghabra said in a teleconference. 

Anyone needing consular assistance is urged to contact their nearest government office or the Global Affairs Emergency Watch and Response Centre. 

With files from Catharine Tunney