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BLOG: Evacuated as Hurricane Irma heads for Florida

ITV News Anglia's reporter Raveena Ghattaura blogs on being evacuated from her hotel in Clearwater as Hurricane Irma heads for Florida

Thursday 7 September 2017

View from the balcony of our room on morning of Thursday 7. Is this the calm before the storm? Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

I have been in Clearwater, Florida with my family since last Saturday 2 September and the weather has been absolutely beautiful, in fact no less than 33 degrees every day. It really is paradise when you are waking up to a view of the sea glistening against the glorious sunshine.

But over the last few days things have taken a turn for the worse because of the looming Hurricane Irma. But just looking at the skies you would never suspect such a dangerous thing is on its way. We have had the news on 24/7 over the last few days and all they have been showing is the latest on Irma and tracking its route. As a journalist, I am constantly refreshing Twitter praying for a glimmer of hope or miracle that the hurricane has disappeared and it's path of destruction has ended.

As you can imagine, panic struck in and we have been glued to the screens hoping that it takes a turn away from Florida. It is currently a category five but could decrease in strength by the time it heads this way they say over the weekend.

Clearwater beach: only a few people in sight on Thursday, most beach shops closed. Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

Clearwater beach was pretty deserted today, our hotel pool has nobody in it and the beachside restaurants and shops have started to close and board up. It was pretty surreal to see such a tourist hotspot with no one around.

We went for lunch at a beach cafe and it was there a waitress told us they had been told to evacuate by 6am Friday morning. Alarm bells started to ring because if they were being told to evacuate, it was probably likely we may have to too. So when we arrived back at our hotel they told us exactly the same thing - "evacuate as soon as you can and we will find you another hotel".

The governor Rick Scott had told everyone out here to leave if you are told to or you are taking a minor risk staying put. So that is exactly what we have done. Packed our bags and are now on route to our new hotel in Orlando closer to the airport. It is true what everyone is saying about no gas. We have driven past quite a few here and there is none left. Luckily we are topped up but I just pray everyone is able to fill up their tanks.

Told to evacuate Thursday evening - the hotel is like a ghost town. Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

There seemed to be more wind as we were leaving too, whether that is because our hotel is by the sea or an inclination of what is to come I do not know! The lightning has got really bad as we are driving to Orlando and the skies have been flashing for the last half an hour. It is the worst and scariest lightning I have ever witnessed in my life. You can see in the picture how bright the skies were. Really hoping this is not a sign of things to come.

The lightning filled the sky as we drove from Clearwater to Orlando. Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

Our flight back is Saturday 9th September at 4:10pm. We are being told by our airline at the moment that the flight is still going ahead but is subject to change weather depending. In the last few hours Orlando Sanford International airport say they will close at 5:00pm. So now it is just a waiting game to see whether it goes ahead as scheduled. With the news this evening that the hurricane has turned West, and is likely to hit the centre of Florida we just do not know what is going to happen. It is very scary and that is the last thing we wanted to hear. Either they will cancel that flight and we get stuck here for a few days or we just about get the last plane back. I am hoping the latter, but that seems more and more unlikely as the hours pass.

I have never wanted to come home so quickly from a holiday. Normally it is the opposite but it has been so stressful, sad and scary trying to figure out what we are doing. Being told to move further East from Clearwater could go two ways. Either we will miss the storm and fly out on time or we get stuck right in the centre of it all. Fingers crossed all will be okay. This hurricane has already taken lives, ruined thousands of homes and separated families from loved ones. I just hope everyone affected by it stays as safe as they can.

Friday 8 September 2017

Our new hotel in Orlando. The Ritz! Hoping We aren't stuck here for longer than anticipated. Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

It is midnight and we have arrived at the new hotel near Orlando international airport. It is gorgeous, but it is difficult to appreciate it because we are only here to stay protected. This could just be a short visit or a much longer one if we get stuck here through the storms! Never did I anticipate I would be in a country where a hurricane is about to hit, but we have to be as ready as we can if it does.

The queue to check in! Everyone just wants to get home safely. Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

The queue to check in was huge - nearly 200 people waiting to get in. It is all those evacuated from Miami that have been sent here to stay safe. But we all want to know the same thing, will planes take off in the next 48 hours. The sooner we know the better because then we can start making arrangements to either drive to another airport or rebook a new flight.

I woke up to the news that the hurricane has gone down to a category four. Still deadly yes, but surely that has to be a good sign if it is weakening?! Still praying for a miracle here!

Saturday 9 September 2017

Yesterday we went to a local shopping outlet and many shops were closing by 3pm to prepare for the hurricane. There were more people around than expected, so we felt more at ease walking around.

The hotel feels more empty today. People are leaving as and when they can get a flight out. The wind has picked up more outside but it is still very warm.

The hurricane tracker says it's now moved further west and is still on course to hit that area between Sunday and Monday afternoon. I got woken up at 6am by a hurricane alert on my phone for this area. It sounded like a siren, which sure panicked me. This happened a number of times throughout the day, meaning Irma was moving closer.

Shops in Orlando close early on Friday 8 September to prepare for the hurricane. Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

I've just seen the news on Twitter that a mandatory evacuation has been issued for all those living in the Pinellas county which means they are predicted the area will take a direct hit.

That includes Clearwater where I spent most of the last week at. How terrifying that we were just there in our hotel, which was located pretty much on the water, but how very grateful I am that we were told to leave when we were.

Our flight has now been delayed by half an hour and is due to leave around 5.30pm tonight. When I saw it had been delayed I was worried it will lead to a cancellation.

What if the weather gets worse and we are stuck here? With the size of Irma being so big, it's pretty likely we will be affected in some form or another if we can't leave. All things I don't want to be thinking about but you can't help but think them.

Still sun in the skies in Orlando on Saturday morning and Irma moves closer Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

I'm watching the news as we speak and Governor Rick Scott says South West Florida is already experiencing strong winds and 25,000 homes have already lost power.

The winds are very expansive. It's now 9.30am and we have eight hours until our flight. I feel like it's touch and go whether we get out of here today or not because Irma is getting close. Mr Scott says that you shouldn't be on the roads after midday so we are planning to leave for the airport asap!

The sad reality of this all is people are worried but don't want to leave their homes. It's devastating. The chairs and tables have been taken away from our balcony as the wind starts to increase. You can feel just how much the weather has changed in the last 48 hours.

It's now midday and we are loading the car with all our suitcases to leave for the airport. The flight is still scheduled to go, but given the impact Irma is already having on Miami, anything can happen and we could be told it's cancelled once we get there.

Leaving our hotel in Orlando as we prepare to leave the state on the last flight back to the UK! Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

We arrived at the airport around half one and there's a long queue of people to check in. Thankfully the flight is still going ahead, but until we are actually in the air anything can still change they said.

We are the last flight to fly back to the UK from Florida and the last to fly from Sanford before the airport closes. The flight is now scheduled to leave on time because they are working hard here to make sure everyone here leaves today.

The more we speak to the locals here the more heartbreaking it is. They're so brave and strong. Everyone is as ready as can be, I just hope they stay safe and look after each other.

We boarded the flight thankfully on time and landed around 5.20am. The normal plane safety procedure was very detailed. They warned us to pay close attention because there would be lots of turbulence on route.

Given that, it was only a seven hour flight back to Gatwick because of strong winds behind us. But we landed safely, and got back just in the nick of time.

Sanford airport empties as the airport prepares to close until Tuesday. Credit: Raveena Ghattaura

I praise all the emergency services, reporters, staff at hotels and restaurants doing an incredible job keeping people positive and safe. Their bravery and resilience is admirable.

Thank you Florida for some fantastic memories, I hope that the state can return to normal and everyone's homes are restored once Irma has passed.

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