'There's an internal, external and political storm targeting region'
Illegal immigrants face a tough choice - take shelter and risk deportation, or sit tight in their flimsy homes and try to ride out Hurricane Irma, writes Daniel Trotta in Apopka, Florida
With Hurricane Irma barrelling down on Central Florida, Carmen Nova had a decision to make.
A Mexican immigrant living in the country illegally, she knew her mobile home was at risk in the storm.
But the 30-year-old mother of three also knew that seeking protection could pose its own hazards.
In a time of increasing public sentiment against illegal immigration, undocumented immigrants like Nova are nervous about reporting to authorities, even if it is to take refuge from a hurricane.
"There's an internal storm, there's an external storm, and there's a political storm, and they're all targeting this community," said Sister Ann Kendrick, a Roman Catholic nun, community organiser and immigrant rights advocate.
"They're getting hammered," said Kendrick, who has worked hard in advance of the hurricane to convince undocumented immigrants that it is safer to take shelter than to remain in less-than-sturdy homes.
Like other counties in Florida, Apopka's Orange County issued an evacuation order for people living in mobile homes, which are a popular housing choice for immigrants.
Fears among immigrants in the area were heightened in recent days after the sheriff in neighbouring Polk County pledged to check criminal records of people seeking shelter.
Although the statement did not mention immigration status and officials later clarified that undocumented immigrants would not be targeted, the warning nevertheless reverberated in migrant communities.
In Apopka, a town of about 50,000 people outside Orlando, Kendrick had plenty of work to do in advance of the storm.
The area's undocumented immigrants historically came to the area to work on farms but in more recent years have shifted to construction, landscaping and housekeeping.
Tirso Moreno, leader of the Apopka-based Farmworker Association of Florida, said the Polk County warning had an impact in Orange County.
"It scared people," said Moreno, who also spread the word with immigrants that they must take shelter.
He said he was not convinced that all the undocumented workers he spoke with would take his advice, saying some were likely to wait out the storm in their mobile homes.
"The big problem is that many of them don't have enough information, although it's better than it used to be now that we have more Spanish-language media," Moreno said.
Kendrick said she fielded calls throughout the day last Friday from undocumented immigrants who wondered if it was safe to report to shelters.
About 50 people, including several undocumented families, were queuing outside a shelter at Apopka High School when it opened at 9am yesterday, Kendrick said.
"They trust the schools, and they trust us, so if we tell them it's safe, they're coming," Kendrick said.
Nova, who cleans houses for a $15 an hour while her husband works as a landscaper for $12 an hour, was among those who decided to seek shelter, saying she would put her fate in God's hands.
"If they ask for papers, I don't have them," Nova said from her mobile home with boarded up windows as she prepared her family to move to the shelter. "The authorities will have to do what they have to do. I am not going to live in fear."
Meanwhile, with the window closing fast for anyone wanting to escape, Irma hurtled towards Florida with 125mph winds yesterday on a shifting course that took it away from Miami and instead threatened the first direct hit on the Tampa area from a major hurricane in nearly a century.
That represented a significant turn in the forecast, which for days had made it look as if the Miami metropolitan area of six million people was going to get slammed head-on by the Big One.
"You don't want to play with this thing," Sen Marco Rubio warned during a visit to the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Centre. "People will die from this."
Forecasters predicted Irma's centre would blow ashore today in the perilously low-lying Florida Keys, then hit south-western Florida, move up the state's Gulf Coast and plough into the Tampa Bay area.
The storm centre itself is expected to miss Miami, but the metro area will still get pounded with life-threatening hurricane winds, National Hurricane Centre spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
Tampa has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, Feltgen said. Now the area has around three million people and encompasses two of Florida's biggest cities: Tampa and St Petersburg.
With the new forecast, Pinellas County, home to St Petersburg, ordered 260,000 people to leave.
The overnight change in course was frustrating and frightening to Tampa Bay residents who awoke to the news, including Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur who planned to ride out the storm in his high-rise house in downtown St. Petersburg.
He complained about days of predictions that Irma would run up the state's east coast, only to undone by a last-minute change.
"As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid," he said.
As the storm closed in on the Sunshine State, it raked Cuba and left more than 20 people dead in its wake across the Caribbean after ravaging such resort islands as St Martin, St Barts, St Thomas, Barbuda and Antigua.
Irma weakened slightly but was expected to pick up strength again before slamming Florida.
Yesterday morning, the hurricane's outer bands blew into South Florida as residents scrambled to leave. Damaging winds were moving into areas including Key Biscayne and Coral Gables, and gusts up to 56mph were reported off Miami.
Already, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said 19,000 homes in the county were without power before midday, including his own.
In Key West, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud sought refuge in a senior centre with her husband, granddaughter and dog. The streets were nearly empty, shops were boarded up and the wind began to gust.
"Tonight, I'm sweating," she said. "Tonight, I'm scared to death."
In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the US, about 6.3m people in Florida - more than one-quarter of the state's population - were warned to leave, and 540,000 were directed to leave the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.
Petrol shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars drove in the southbound lanes.
"If you are planning to leave and do not leave tonight, you will have to ride out this extremely dangerous storm at your own risk," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said last Friday. He urged everybody in the Keys to get out.