By Genalyn Kabiling
The government has mobilized the country’s embassy staff in the United States (US) to provide assistance to Filipinos who may be affected by Hurricane Irma now battering Florida.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella assured that they are closely monitoring the condition of Filipinos living in areas on the path of the powerful storm.
“The Philippine embassy in Washington, DC, has already advised the close to 200,000 members of the Filipino community in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to comply with the evacuation orders issued by authorities,” Abella said at a Palace press briefing.
He said Filipinos in North Carolina and Virginia have also been advised to take the necessary precautionary measures after both states were placed under a state of emergency.
“We assure our kababayans that our embassy and consular staff will be on standby in case of any need,” Abella said.
6 M people flee
Irma, which has toppled cranes, swallowed streets, and left millions without power, continued its furious climb up Florida’s southwest coast Monday, bearing down on the vulnerable Tampa Bay region.
More than six million people have been ordered to flee the path of the hurricane – one of the biggest evacuations in US history – which is expected to trigger massive storm surges through vast swaths of the Sunshine State.
After wreaking a trail of death and destruction through the Caribbean, Irma remained a Category Two storm, packing dangerous maximum sustained winds of 100 miles (169 kilometers) per hour.
Irma was expected to remain a hurricane into Monday with a turn to the north-northwest overnight, according to the National Hurricane Center, lashing central Florida and threatening dangerous storm surges.
The storm killed three people when it struck the southern Florida Keys island chain as a more powerful Category Four earlier in the day.
Well over three million people were without power throughout the state, according to utility company Florida Power and Light, which said it had “safely shut down” one of two nuclear reactors at its Turkey Point power plant.
Handfuls of holdout residents, having defied calls to evacuate, hunkered down as Irma tore over the Keys, ripping boats from their moorings, flattening palm trees and downing power lines across the island chain popular for fishing and scuba diving.
Hours later, one of the mightiest hurricanes ever to slam the state made a second landfall on Marco Island near the beach resort of Naples.
“I am concerned about people that don’t believe in the storm surge,” said Virginia Defreeuw, 76, who fled her mobile home in Naples to a shelter. “You need to be afraid of the storm surge! People are not listening.”
As Irma appeared to set its sights on the Tampa area – home to three million residents, about half of whom live less than 10 feet above sea level – some people there who may not have evacuated were taken by surprise by Irma’s northwest shift.
Facing Irma’s wrath, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the city did everything it could to get people out of the coastal areas. I am sure there are still people that are still there, thinking that they can hunker down on this storm,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told a press briefing Sunday, before paraphrasing a famous boxer’s words.
“I never thought I would be quoting Mike Tyson, but ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,’” he said. “Well, we are about to get punched in the face.”
While southwest Florida bore the deadly brunt of Irma’s wrath Sunday, the coastlines of Miami and the neighboring island of Miami Beach were heavily inundated by storm surges as hurricane winds sent two giant construction cranes crashing down.
The sea swallowed the coastal walkway of glitzy Brickell Avenue in the center of Miami, flooding the streets and leaving cars half-submerged.
“The wooden pier is basically gone,” said Steven Schlacknam, a 51-year-old visual artist watching from a 37th floor apartment.
President Donald Trump, who vowed to travel to Florida “very soon,” approved the state’s request for emergency federal aid to help with temporary housing, home repairs, emergency work and hazard mitigation.
“Right now, we’re worried about lives, not cost,” Trump said.
At least 30 deaths are already attributable to the storm. The US victims included a sheriff’s deputy killed in a head-on collision early Sunday as she drove home for supplies after working in a shelter all night.
British Virgin Islands
Meanwhile, a team sent by the Philippine embassy is facing difficulty getting Filipinos out of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), which was bombarded by Irma.
“BVI’s airport is in limited operation and commercial flights are temporarily suspended. The BVI London Office has instructed any party wishing to land aircraft and sail vessels in the territory to first seek permission from the Department of Disaster Management,” the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC, said in an e-mailed statement.
“We have been working 24/7 to secure the necessary clearances to safely convey our team into the BVI and facilitate the repatriation of Filipino nationals,” it added.
Minister Patrick A. Chuasoto, chargé d’affaires, had earlier disclosed more than 90 Filipinos have enlisted to be voluntarily taken out of BVI “due to the continued hardships they face in getting necessities and medicines”.
The response team of the Philippine embassy arrived in Puerto Rico, a United States territory, Sunday and is awaiting signal to go to the British territory in the Caribbean.
The extraction team is “coordinating with third countries that may serve as landing points in order to ensure the repatriates’ authorized entry into their territories.”
According to the Embassy, there are 264 Filipinos working in BVI. They are medical personnel as well as those who work in accounting and construction.
The embassy is also closely monitoring Irma as it batters the US state of Florida. (With reports from AFP and Tara Yap)
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