MIAMI/NAPLES, Fla. - Irma began leaving Cuba on its approach to the southwest coast of Florida, its sights now set on cities like Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa.
While that takes Irma's dangerous winds and storm surge farther from Miami, the most populated urban area in the south of the state, it leaves exposed the vulnerable Florida Keys and some of the most flood prone areas of Florida's Gulf coast.
Southwest Florida has traditionally been an affluent retreat for retirees, so-called 'snowbirds' from up north, but in recent years they have attracted young immigrants, including many Hispanics, some who works in the agricultural fields of Collier County.
On Saturday, streets were deserted and residents were busy putting up shutters or nailing plywood to their home exteriors.
Ironically, Univision News correspondent Damià Bonmatí, who arrived in Naples at noon on Saturday, said many cars were fleeing from the city in the direction of Miami. "They are telling us that there is no gas and everything is closed," Bonmatí reported.
Co-founded by a Confederate general, John Stuart Williams, some 42 percent of Naples 20,000 residents are age 65 or higher, according to Forbes magazine list of 25 top places to retire rich. The area claims to have more golf clubs per capita than anywhere in the United States. The average home price is $520,000. President Donald Trump won the 2016 election by 26 percentage points (62%-36%) in Collier County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 2:1.
Southwest Florida is one of the fastest growing areas in one of the fastest growing states, according to the latest census estimate in March. The region has 1.2 million inhabitants, of which 25 percent are over 65, according to the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance. The area also welcomes many tourists attracted by some of Florida's most unspoiled beaches.
The other side of the coin is Immokalee, an agricultural community producing tomatoes, where 70 percent of the population is Hispanic, many of whom are poor undocumented.
Further north of Naples and Fort Myers is the Tampa-St.Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area with a population of three million, according to the census. It is the fourth fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. Part of the growth in Tampa is due to the arrival of Latino emigrants, including a large Mexican population and recent refugees from the economic crisis of Puerto Rico.
Tampa is according to experts one of the most vulnerable areas of the United States to floods and damage from the direct impact of a hurricane. A Boston consultancy, CoreLogic, wrote a report estimating that the region would lose $175 billion if hit by a hurricane the size of Katrina. A World Bank study also found that Tampa Bay is one of the top 10 flood risk areas in the world. Almost 30 percent of Tampa Bay residents live in high-risk areas.
The Tampa Bay region has not suffered a direct impact from a Category 3 or greater hurricane in nearly a century. National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said that when Tampa was hit by a major storm known as Hurricane Tarpon Springs in 1921 its population was only 10,000 people. According to National Weather Service model it caused storm surge of 9 -11 feet.
"Tampa Bay doesn't get hit very often by hurricanes," according to Jeff Masters, meterology director at the Weather Underground.. "The city faces the ocean to the west, and the prevailing east-to-west trade winds at that latitude make it uncommon for a storm to make a direct hit on the west coast of Florida from the ocean," he added. "The large expanse of shallow continental shelf waters offshore from Tampa Bay (less than 300 feet deep out to 90 miles offshore) is conducive for allowing large storm surges to build."
The Great Gale of 1848, the most violent hurricane in Tampa's history, a Category 3 or 4 hurricane with 115 - 135 mph winds, caused a 15-foot storm surge in what is now downtown Tampa. The last time Tampa suffered a direct hit by any hurricane was 1946, when a Category 1 storm came up through the bay.
Susan Glickman, an environmental activist, left her home in St. Petersburg Beach on Saturday and headed to a hotel in downtown Tampa. "I've done what I can," she told Univision News. It was "a really long time" since she recalled Tampa facing a major storm threat, not since 1960 when Donna came close, and Elena in 1985. "This storm is appearing to be the worst case scenario," she said.
She was also worried about her sister Nancy and her brother-in-law Tom went to look after his 90-year-old father in Cape Coral, where Irma eye is projected to make landfall. "I told her (Nancy) 100 times to get in the car and come north, but they want to stay there," she said.
Low lying South Tampa, where Glickman grew up, was especially at risk, she said. "It does not take much water to flood, the streets get terrible and that's just when it rains."
Fernando Peinado and David Adams reported from Miami and Damià Bonmatí from Naples.