On St. Martin, already devastated by Irma, Dutch Marines dropped fliers from a helicopter warning inhabitants to head to shelters. The authorities in Barbuda were evacuating its population of about 1,600 people to its sister island, Antigua.

Many buildings in Florida, unlike in the Caribbean, are built to withstand powerful hurricanes, but if the projections for the storm hold, more than 3 million people on Florida’s west coast, from Naples up to the sprawling Tampa Bay area, which sits on peninsulas, face storm surges that could submerge whole neighborhoods.

For days, the authorities had been warning people in coastal areas to evacuate and hundreds of thousands heeded the warning. But the storm is so vast, stretching more than 300 miles, and so powerful, with winds reaching 125 miles an hour, that there was really no place in southern Florida that could be considered completely out of danger.

Paul Kamps, an accountant from Palm Beach County, had left home Friday with his wife, two sons, two dogs and their cat and drove to St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast. When they left, the forecast suggested that Hurricane Irma would head straight up the state, with Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach taking the storm’s powerful east winds.

On Saturday, Mr. Kamps, 53, was loading up his car again and heading back home. “We left yesterday thinking we’d be coming to the safer place,” he said.

The storm had killed at least 20 people by the time it made landfall in Cuba Friday night as a Category 5. The hurricane was downgraded to Category 3 early Saturday but was expected to strengthen before the eye made landfall in Florida on Sunday.

And with the track of the storm moving west, all of the low-lying Keys became vulnerable to life-threatening winds, dangerous storm surge, or both.

“We evacuated our visitors and have evacuated most of our residents,” Roman Gastesi, the county administrator for Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, said in a statement. “We continue to try to persuade our residents that remain in the Keys to get out while they still can.”

The county’s emergency operations center was forced to flee its Marathon headquarters Saturday and most of the staff went to the Ocean Reef resort in Key Largo, said the county spokeswoman, Cammy Clark.

In the days leading up to landfall, the projected path of the storm bounced between the east and west coasts of Florida, but by Saturday the models were converging and pointed to the area between Naples and St. Petersburg as the bull’s eye.

As the storm approached, all along Interstate 75, the major north-south artery on the Gulf Coast, workers had lowered the lighting fixtures that normally sit atop high steel poles, so the poles would offer less resistance to the wind and have a better chance of surviving.

Many people in Southwest Florida, it appeared, had heeded the authorities’ orders to evacuate.

Winds were already picking up Saturday morning in Fort Myers, the blustery air practically dripping with moisture. With existing shelters at or near capacity, emergency officials in Lee County opened two more on Saturday. Some evacuees had arrived at them the night before, sleeping in their cars or in sleeping bags on the ground before the doors opened in the morning.

Suzanne Orbaker and Kathleen Goss were among those waiting in a line of care, in a five-year-old gray Lexus. Ms. Orbaker said they had planned to stay in their retirement community but decided on Friday to seek shelter.

“It sounded pretty bad on the TV,” she said. “We’re old — we didn’t want to take any chances.”

At least 70 new shelters were to open in Florida on Saturday, adding to the 260 already filling up or full. Governor Scott asked for volunteers to help at special-needs shelters. “We need more nurses,” he said at the news conference. “All available nurses, if you’ll please respond.”


Robert McCarthy and his son Brian McCarthy loading lumber they planned to use for home protection outside a Lowe’s in Port Orange, Fla., on Saturday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Brig. Gen. Ralph Ribas Starke of the Florida National Guard said that more than 7,000 troops were positioned around the state and would be ready to move once the winds died down to tropical storm levels.

Because the storm was so vast, the Coast Guard positioned its response force — including four C-130 Hercules fixed-wing aircraft, eight MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and four MH-65 Dolphin helicopters — in New Orleans.

It also declared “Condition Zulu” at the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Manatee ports, forcing the suspension of all activity for an indefinite period.

With the storm expected to move up the west coast of the state and then to Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, it was difficult to judge how long and how many people might be left on their own.

Officials said people in the direct path of the storm should have two weeks of supplies. But in the days leading up to the storm, there was a run on basic goods, with shelves picked clean of water and many gas stations left with only fumes.

By Saturday night, while the hurricane swept over the state, people had to make do with what they had.

At any time, a storm of this magnitude would have caused deep concern. But as Irma tore through the Caribbean, the images of flattened homes and the harried tales of near death seemed add to the anxiety.

Even as officials were trying to assess the damage to islands like Barbuda, Antigua, and St. John, Hurricane Jose, packing winds of over 130 m.p.h., was bearing down on them. It was expected to pass by the region on Saturday before heading north into open ocean, and was not expected to threaten the continental United States.

All of the destruction wrought by nature in recent days — with Harvey drowning much of southern Texas even as Irma was forming over Gambia in West Africa — seemed to give the urgent warnings of officials more weight. While there were thousands of people who ignored evacuation orders, many more fled.

The demand for shelters, and the closing of a number of hotels on short notice, added to some initial chaos in getting people where they needed to go.

Derrick Murphy, 41, was kicked out of his South Beach hotel and, having moved to Miami only two weeks ago, did not know anyone in town he could turn to for help.

“They said, you have to go,” he said, his bags at his feet. “So I asked can you give us any solutions of where to go?”

“There are supposed to be all these shelters and all these places but I have not been able to get information from anyone,” Mr. Murphy added.

He boarded a bus a few hours later, but it took him to a shelter that was full and he was turned away.

He ended up at a shelter set up at Carol City Senior High School in Miami Gardens, but there were too few beds and blankets. He described the whole journey as a mess.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dade County acknowledged the confusion late Friday night.

“We needed to distribute people in a better way,” he said, explaining that there was an initial failure of communication, with people who did not know what was going on giving orders to buses.

“I’m sorry if we inconvenienced some people but it was done so you would be safe,” he said. “You will be safe and you will be fed.”

In Miami-Dade alone, there were more than 23,000 people in shelters.

For many, that meant spending several terrifying days in a strange place with strangers, although in some shelters, like the one at Highland Oaks Middle School, people could at least bring their pets.

As the storm approached, the halls echoed with the barking of dogs and the shouted instructions of harried officials. They would all rather have been somewhere else.

“There was not even a choice in the matter,” said Edwin Geliga, 35, who lives in a trailer park in North Miami Beach and was ordered to evacuate. “My trailer is a very weak structure. I know deep in my heart that it would collapse.”

At another table, Nicolas Jutchenko, 60, said he too had no faith in the structural integrity of his home in Sunny Isles Beach, even though it was in a condominium building. “It was built in 1972 and the windows are paper thin,” he said. “I just feel bad for the people who chose to stay there. I told a couple of them that this place was open and that I was coming here. I said, ‘I got to go.’”

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