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Canadian snowbirds caught in Florida evacuations as state braces for Hurricane Irma

Orlando city employees and volunteers fill sandbags for residents on Friday as the city prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Irma. Lines of vehicles stretched for miles and many waited several hours to get the sandbags.

John Raoux/AP

While their compatriots who were caught in Irma's path in the Caribbean islands emerged to a shattered landscape, in Florida, where a massive evacuation had gridlocked highways, other Canadians were bracing for the weekend's arrival of the monstrous hurricane.

Lawyer Louis St. Laurent left his home in Coral Springs, near Fort Lauderdale, with his wife, daughter and two miniature schnauzers on Wednesday morning, hoping to beat the rush out of south Florida.

It took five hours to make what is normally a three-hour trip to Orlando to stay with friends of his wife's. But Mr. St. Laurent – grandson of Canada's 12th prime minister – could count himself among the more fortunate: People who had left later told him traffic was moving at a speed of just three kilometres an hour.

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Legions of people were pouring into Orlando, he said, hoping to avoid the worst of the storm. But now, they faced the possibility that the middle of the state might get it even worse: Tracking models Friday afternoon showed the epicentre of the storm could move directly up the centre of Florida.

"It's very unpredictable – no one knows who is going to get the worst of it," he said in a telephone interview from Orlando on Friday afternoon. "No one knows where it's going. You can't move 20 million people out of Florida; where are they going to go?"

Supplies, he said, were running low: In Coral Springs, he tried to find bottled water at eight different stores with no luck. When he spoke with The Globe and Mail, he had just returned from Costco, where he happened to arrive right after a delivery of water and scored nine cases.

Mr. St. Laurent has been through several hurricanes before, starting with Donna, which ravaged the east coast of the state in 1960. That time, he left his home on Anna Maria Island for a motel in Bradenton, whose roof was torn off the storm. He also lived through Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. During Andrew, a three-storey apartment block across the street was reduced to just one floor, he said, while a 150-foot freighter boat wound up in the yard of a house down the street.

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While Irma is not expected to make landfall in Florida until early Sunday, wind gusts of more than 30 km/h could already be felt, said Antony Livingston, who was planning to ride out the storm in his home in Jupiter, north of West Palm Beach.

Mr. Livingston, a businessman who moved to Jupiter from Toronto a decade ago, said he had confidence in his concrete-block house, which has hurricane-impact windows, storm shutters and a generator fuelled by a 3,800-litre supply of propane.

"Just getting out of the state is nearly impossible," he said, adding that northbound highway traffic was now so packed that he expected the authorities to reverse the southbound lanes to relieve the congestion.

He had been helping friends board up their homes and they were stocking up on water jugs, amid warnings that electricity would be out for two weeks and service stations would run out of gasoline.

Luckily for him, his house was at a high point, six kilometres from the ocean, so he expected to be spared from a possible storm surge.

Wayne Bannatyne planned to ride out the hurricane at his home in Orlando with his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law. The plan was to pull mattresses into the hallway of the house.

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Living in an older neighbourhood with large trees and above-ground power lines, he was preparing to lose power starting Sunday night.

"We're stocking up on supplies – non-perishable food, propane for the gas grill," said Mr. Bannatyne, who works as business-development manager for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The most noticeable shortages in the city, he said, were of gasoline as people fuelled up their cars in anticipation of coming power outages. Some service stations had run out while others saw long lines.

Born in Montreal and raised in Calgary, Mr. Bannatyne has lived in Florida since 1984. In 2004, he weathered hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.

For other Canadians, the destruction was already all too real.

Erica Lall was visiting family on Barbuda when the hurricane arrived.

"It was kind of scary. It was the first hurricane I've ever been through. After it was done, just seeing the whole island, it was unrecognizable," she said after arriving back in Toronto on Friday.

"The winds were so strong. Even though [the windows were boarded], some boards came off, the door flew open."

Ms. Lall said the roof flew off of her grandmother's home, but her uncle's house stood strong, save for some minor leaks and the broken door.

She said the winds picked up around 8 p.m. and the hurricane raged until 3 a.m.

"It sounded like thunder, but non-stop," she said.

When Irma let up, Barbuda's power, cellphone towers and radio were down, Ms. Lall said. She was originally supposed to fly to Canada from Barbuda's sister island, Antigua, on Saturday. But when Barbuda was evacuated Friday morning, she boarded a boat to Antigua and found a flight heading out the same day.

"There was no communication. I just went. We were supposed to go to a shelter. I had to go sign in there before I could go to the airport. It was just hectic. I was praying I could get on the flight," she said.

On the island of Saint Martin, where Irma made landfall on Wednesday, Fraser Barnfather, a real estate developer from Fernie, B.C., drove around afterward and took pictures of the devastation: buildings shattered, a boat tossed to the shore, tree branches stripped bare of their leaves.

He saw that the Pizza Galley, a restaurant by the Simpson Bay lagoon that was run by Quebecker Jean-Pierre Guilbert, was completely destroyed, with only a handful of posts sticking out of the water.

During the storm, he recalled on his Facebook page, as his building shook and pieces of it fell away, Mr. Barnfather had moved a fridge against a door but the wind blew so hard it pushed the door back.

There was a curfew, police turned him away when he tried to drive to a housing development he was managing, and there was talk of looting in the Dutch capital of Philipsburg.

"Things are out of control & not enough help for local police. … It is only going to get worse. Would be great if Canada sent some military," he wrote.

By Thursday, Irma was hitting the Turks and Caicos Islands, where several Canadians were among vacationers stranded at the Club Med Turkoise resort.

Food, water and flashlights were distributed to the guests, who were instructed to relocate onto upper-floor rooms and shelter in the bathrooms during the overnight storm.

Sébastien Poirier, a Montrealer staying at the Club Med, praised the staff while noting some guests' lack of grace. "Big slow clap to people who whined because they wanted another flashlight colour or the lady who demanded a coffeemaker during the storm," he wrote on Facebook.

By 5:30 a.m. Friday, the hurricane had moved on. Mr. Poirier reported that his sweltering room had lost power, he hadn't slept much but "morale is good."

Kenny Caughlin, who lives in Ontario but co-owns two music radio stations in the Turks and Caicos Islands, in an interview said he had been in touch with residents Friday morning and been told there was extensive flooding, fallen trees and damage to some homes. He said he had not received immediate word on any loss of life.

"From my friends that went through the storm, they said they've never experienced one like that before, that they could actually feel the pressure in their chest," he said.

In Ottawa, the Canadian Forces said that the patrol frigate HMCS St-John's, which left Halifax on Thursday, has been ordered to be ready to support any potential relief efforts.

Global Affairs Canada said in a statement it is closely following the situation and making every available effort to assist Canadian citizens affected by the hurricane.

As of early Friday evening, Global Affairs said the emergency watch and response centre in Ottawa had processed over 500 calls and 120 e-mails related to Irma.

It said Canadians requiring emergency consular assistance could contact the department's Emergency Watch and Response Centre at +1-613-996-8885 or by e-mail at

Chiran Livera, operations manager for the Canadian Red Cross, in an interview said it has teams in Haiti and the Dominican Republic at the moment. He said its Red Cross partners also have personnel on the ground in a number of other places, including Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Martin. He said the Canadian Red Cross is supporting its partner agencies through funding.

Mr. Livera said Red Cross personnel throughout the region are manning shelters for those who need them and distributing emergency items, such as blankets and hygiene kits.

He said those who want to donate to the Canadian Red Cross can do so through its website.

The federal government said Friday it would contribute $100,000 to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency to assist with supplies and assessment teams.

It said it would also release $60,000 from its emergency disaster assistance fund to support Red Cross operations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

With a report from Steven Chase in Ottawa

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