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Hundreds of thousands flee as Florida braces for Hurricane Irma

As Florida braced for a lashing from Hurricane Irma this weekend, people trying to get out of the dangerous Category 5 storm's path accused airlines and gas stations of trying to capitalize on the panic and chaos by price gouging.

Residents complain gas stations and airlines are price gouging

Thousands clog highways, supply stores, gas stations 1:04

As Florida braced for a lashing from Hurricane Irma this weekend, people trying to get out of the dangerous Category 5 storm's path accused airlines and gas stations of trying to capitalize on the panic and chaos by price gouging.

Hundreds of thousands of people in south Florida are under mandatory evacuation orders, and are scrambling to make last-minute travel plans.

Medical student Eric Slabaugh said he was dismayed by ticket prices over $2,000 US when he started looking for flights earlier this week. He got a ticket to Detroit for $700, he said, "because nobody wants to go there."

Under pressure from some members of Congress following social media reports, airlines have taken the unusual step of publicly announcing price caps on tickets out of areas in Irma's course.

A woman with a full cart walks past empty shelves where bread is normally stacked in a Walmart store in North Miami Beach on Thursday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Early on, carrier JetBlue capped flights out of the area at $99, and other carriers followed suit, capping fares at between $99 and $399 a ticket.

But while airlines offered some cheap flights out of south Florida after complaints, passengers said that did little good if all the flights were fully booked or cancelled.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who had been pressuring airlines to aid in evacuating Florida residents, spoke with airline executives on Thursday and urged them to add more flight outs of Florida.

His office said Nelson is "pleased" airlines were doing everything they could to "help get impacted Floridians to safety."

Gas prices up

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said on Thursday her office had received 45 complaints of inflated prices at Chevron branded gas stations in the southern part of the state, as shortages worsened ahead of Irma's expected U.S. landfall this weekend.

More than 1,800 gas stations — more than a quarter of the state's total — were without fuel late Thursday, up from 1,200 Wednesday, ahead of Irma, which was battering the Caribbean with winds at speeds of around 300 km/h. The storm is expected to hit Florida on Sunday.

James Byrd, left, and Richard Clark, right, load their sandbags in a truck Wednesday at Newtown Estates Recreation Center in Sarasota, Fla., as they prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Mike Lang/Sarasota Herald-Tribune via AP)

Gasoline prices in Florida have risen sharply in the last week, with the average cost of a regular gallon of gas hitting $2.72 on Thursday, according to motorists advocacy group AAA. Suppliers and terminal operators said demand has soared as motorists in coastal areas flee.

Shortages were more acute in southern Florida, according to Gasbuddy.com. More than 40 per cent of stations in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area were without fuel and around 30 per cent were empty in the West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce areas, said Patrick DeHaan of Gasbuddy.com.

University of Toronto student Athena Masson worries about the potential impact of the storm 5:31

"So Chevron, if you're watching me right now, you need to call us and tell us why your prices are inflated in south Florida," Bondi said on Fox News.

Chevron has said several times this week it has no tolerance for price gouging at its stations. No retail outlets in Florida are directly owned by the company. The company reiterated that on Thursday, saying consumers should report price gouging to Bondi's office.

"Our fuel supply agreements with independently owned Chevron and Texaco stations in the state and elsewhere require them to comply with all laws," spokesman Braden Reddall said in a statement.

'Leave!'

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said earlier Thursday that his office was "aggressively working around the clock" to bring in more fuel to evacuation zones.

He ordered military escorts for fuel supply ships coming into Florida's ports and state police to escort fuel trucks on the roads. He also waived "restrictions and regulations" so deliveries can be expedited. He urged residents travelling short distances or to local shelters to ration and not fill up their tanks.

A sign on a business is pictured on Thursday in advance of Hurricane Irma's expected arrival in North Miami Beach, Florida. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Scott also urged residents to heed evacuation orders.

"We can rebuild your home … but you can't get your life back," said Scott. "If you live in any evacuation zones and you're still at home, leave!"

As the storm looked increasingly likely to rip into heavily populated South Florida by early Sunday, officials expanded a mandatory evacuation order Thursday that covered some 700,000 people in Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys, about 24 kilometres south of Miami. 

Pinellas County, which includes Tampa Bay, ordered a mandatory evacuation of areas containing mobile homes, while Broward County, which contains Fort Lauderdale, issued voluntary evacuations of mobile homes and low-lying areas.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers and 3,000 National Guard members were monitoring the high volume of traffic heading north and inland.

Global Affairs Canada has advised against all travel to the regions in the path of Irma. For those already in affected areas, Global Affairs is advising Canadians to be prepared and follow the advice of local authorities.

Orlando's airport announced it would suspend all commercial flights after 5 p.m. ET Saturday.

Can't ride this storm out: Scott

"People, do not believe you can ride this storm out," he said, describing it as "catastrophic" and comparable to Andrew, which landed in 1992 and for 12 years was the costliest-ever hurricane in the U.S.

Florida Power and Light said it had all hands on deck for Irma, but warned customers of the potential for prolonged outages. The utility urged people to prepare for that scenario, and said that in the worst-hit areas, the energy grid may need a rebuild.

The power utility said it would shut down two of its nuclear power plants before Irma comes ashore. The Turkey Point and St. Lucie plants generate power for about 1.9 million homes.

Feds, corporations pitch in

Scott said both President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence pledged to provide any necessary federal assistance, with the state in need of supply trucks, tarps, water and baby food, among other items.

He also said Google, Expedia and the U.S. telecom giants have stepped up to help provide up-to-date route conditions, non-shelter lodging information and free Wi-Fi areas.

Speaking in the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump said his administration is "very concerned" as the record hurricane approaches the U.S. mainland, but said "we think we're as well prepared as you can possibly be."

The president said he hopes the storm won't hit Florida directly.

Trump said "we are with the people of Florida" as Hurricane Irma draws near.

Scott said the state is looking for an additional 10,000 volunteers — nearly double the current number who have signed up online or in person — to help move supplies and work at shelters.

Georgia, Carolinas on guard

Shifting forecasts have also prompted emergency declarations in the Carolinas and coastal Georgia, including areas that haven't suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century.

Residents line up for propane in Boca Raton, Fla., on Thursday. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered evacuations for all areas east of Interstate 95, including the city of Savannah, and authorized about 5,000 National Guard members to help with response and recovery.

The last time Georgia was struck by a hurricane of force Category 3 or higher happened in 1898.

His South Carolina counterpart, Gov. Henry McMaster, declared an emergency for that neighbouring state as officials assessed the chances of receiving a major hurricane strike there for the first time in nearly 28 years.

McMaster cautioned it wasn't yet an order of evacuation, but that could occur as early as Friday.

"When that hurricane is coming, when it gets close, it's too late."

With files from CBC News