Just one short month ago, Tropical Storm Emily — a weak tropical cyclone that didn't even cross over South Florida — dumped enough water in South Beach to ruin dozens of cars and flood several restaurants. After Tuesday's announcement that Hurricane Irma is now a Category 5 storm, Miami Beach officials are trying to keep residents calm while making preparations for a worst-case scenario.
City workers are adding back-up generators to flood pumps around the Beach but also warning that the system isn't designed for a massive hurricane. Residents should be prepared to evacuate, they say.
"Please know that staff is hard at work preparing for the worst," City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote in a Tuesday-morning email to top leadership. "Hopefully, we can dodge this bullet, but we won't know that until it is too late."
In his message, Morales says each of the city's permanent pumps has been assigned a temporary generator, adding that 22 additional fuel-operated pumps will be temporarily positioned around Miami Beach. The caveat is that the pumps aren't meant to handle the pressure of a major storm, let alone a Category 5 hurricane.
"The pumps will be working overtime and do everything they can to keep the roadways clear the best they can, but at the same time, we live on a barrier island," Commissioner Michael Grieco tells New Times. "Even if the storm doesn't hit us directly, there will still be a significant storm surge and significant rainfall. We need to prepare for that. There will be some flooding."
8 AM Update: Hurricane Irma is now a category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph. pic.twitter.com/TrGMmlLlkl— NWS Miami (@NWSMiami) September 5, 2017
As of Tuesday morning, the city was preparing to hand out sandbags to residents and business owners, with information on pick-up locations expected to be released by Wednesday. As always, Miami Beach will open its municipal garages for free so residents can get their cars off the street.
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez says evacuations could begin as early as Wednesday if the storm's path heads toward Miami Beach.
"We’re waiting right now obviously to see if we're getting a hit. We're going to have to do whatever we can to evacuate the seniors and those who can't evacuate themselves," she says.
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The city has begun working on a plan to help get homeless residents off the Beach and into shelters, according to Rosen Gonzalez and Grieco. City workers have also been trimming trees ahead of the storm. Grieco says he is working to make sure construction materials from sites around the city are secured or moved to prevent them from becoming projectiles in heavy winds.
Residents who want to be extra-prepared can download the city's hurricane preparation guide and make plans for a possible evacuation.
"The message I'm sending out to people is not to do the thing where you go, 'Oh, it might not hit us, so I don't want to do all this work and then it doesn't happen,'" Grieco says. "We need to treat every hurricane like it's a Cat 5 and it's going to hit your house."