Qatar giving $30 mln to help Harvey victims in Texas

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Floridians hustle to flee Irma

Hundreds of people gather in an emergency shelter at the Miami-Dade County Fair Expo Center in Miami, Florida on Sept 8, ahead of Hurricane Irma. Florida Governor Rick Scott warned that all of the state’s 20 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate as Hurricane Irma bears down for a direct hit on the southern US state. (AFP)

MIAMI, Sept 9, (AP): With the window closing fast for anyone wanting to escape, Irma hurtled toward Florida with 130 mph winds Saturday on a shifting course that threatened the first direct hit on the Tampa area from a major hurricane in nearly a century. Forecasters predicted Irma’s center would blow ashore Sunday and strike the Florida Keys, then hit southwestern Florida, move up the state’s Gulf Coast and plow into the Tampa Bay area.

The storm center is expected to miss the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — which for days had been expecting to get hit head-on — but it will still be pounded with lifethreatening hurricane winds, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The Tampa Bay area has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921. On Saturday 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 56 mph (90 kph) were reported off Miami. Irma was expected to pick up strength again as it closed in on Florida.

In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the US, about 5.6 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state’s population — were told to leave, and 540,000 were ordered to clear out from the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees. “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 Friday. He urged everybody in the Keys to get out.

Ray Scarborough and girlfriend Leah Etmanczyk left their home in Big Pine Key and fled north with her parents and three big dogs to stay with relatives in Orlando. Scarborough was 12 when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and remembers lying on the floor in a hallway as the storm nearly ripped the roof off his house. Forecasters adjusted the storm’s potential track more toward the west coast of Florida, away from the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, meaning “a less costly, a less deadly storm,” University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said. Nevertheless, forecasters warned that its hurricane-force winds were so wide they could reach from coast to coast, testing the adequacy of the more stringent hurricane building codes adopted in the last decade or so.

Gas 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. In suburban Palm Beach County on the state’s Atlantic coast, the streets were nearly deserted early Saturday as the first squall from Irma dropped a brief shower over the area. Gas stations ran out of fuel, grocery stores were closed and only a few fast-food restaurants were open. Earlier, Hurricane Irma pummeled the north coast of Cuba Saturday, inflicting “significant damage”.

At least 19 people have been killed since Irma began its devastating march through the Caribbean as a Category Five storm of nearly unmatched power, making landfall late Friday in Cuba on the Camaguey archipelago. Terrified Cubans who rode out Irma in coastal towns reported “deafening” winds, uprooted trees and power lines, and blown rooftops. “What’s out there is terrible,” said Gisela Fernandez, a 42-year-old nurse, after the storm whipped the town in Chapara in the province of Las Tunas Friday. “It’s finished raining, but all night long there were terrible winds.” The governor of Camaguey province, Isabel Gonzalez Cardenas, said her area was “seriously affected,” but there were no immediate reports of casualties. Cuban officials reported “significant damage.” More than a million people evacuated from vulnerable areas in Cuba.

Qatar is donating $30 million to help people in Texas recover from Harvey, its ambassador said Thursday, as the Arab Gulf nation works to show it’s a constructive global player amid a diplomatic crisis with its neighbors.

The contribution appears to be the largest from a foreign government to assist with the hurricane that devastated stretches of the Texas coast. It came the same day that the United Arab Emirates, one of Qatar’s opponents in the Arab Gulf dispute, announced its own $10 million to help Harvey victims. Both donations were announced as the leader of Kuwait, which has been mediating the Qatar crisis, was in Washington discussing the dispute with President Donald Trump and other American officials.

Qatar pledged the funds through the newly created Qatar Harvey Fund, which Ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani said would work with Texas Gov Greg Abbott, local organizations and other Texas officials including the Houston mayor. The funds will be used “to help rebuild communities” affected by flooding.

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