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An estimated 6.3 million people have been ordered to evacuate

"If you're going to stay, hunker down," Tampa mayor says

CNN  — 

Gov. Rick Scott implored Floridians on Saturday to heed their local evacuation orders.

“If you have been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now,” he said at a morning news conference. “Do not wait. Evacuate. Not tonight, not in an hour. You need to go right now.”

Scott told residents of southwest Florida they needed to leave by noon. If they weren’t on the road at that point, he said, “Do not get on the road.”

An estimated 6.3 million people have been ordered to evacuate, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Floridians began a mass exodus on Thursday as Hurricane Irma, the powerful Category 5 storm, plowed through the Caribbean toward the Sunshine State.

Paulita Kundid, left, and her brother Mike board up their apartment building on Friday in Daytona Beach.

The dramatic mass exodus from South Florida could become one of the largest evacuations in US history, CNN senior meteorologist Dave Hennen said. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are home to about 6 million people combined.

But by Saturday, Irma’s path had shifted toward Florida’s west coast, threatening the lower Florida Keys and cities such as Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa, and the clock is ticking for those who haven’t left, officials warned.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Saturday morning that 14 shelters are opening in the area to take in evacuees.

“Obviously, there will be people who think they can ride this out. We hope they will be OK,” Buckhorn said. “I will tell you that if the winds are consistently at 40 mph or greater, our police and firefighters cannot come to get you. So if you’re going to stay, hunker down.”

After battering Cuba, Irma was expected to strengthen again before it hits the Florida Keys.

“Based on what we know, the majority of Florida will have major hurricane impact and deadly winds. We expect this along the entire east coast and west coast,” the governor said at a Friday news conference. “All Floridians should be prepared to evacuate.”

Thousands line up outside shelter

Thousands of evacuees waited in line outside the Germain Arena shelter in Estero, on the southwest side of Florida, on Saturday, hoping they could ride out the storm inside.

“We had nowhere else to go,” one said when asked what made him come to the shelter.

Some of the families told CNN’s Drew Griffin they had been waiting for up to five hours to get in.

“We’ve been here for a while and I know it’s very hard,” one woman named Alex told Griffin about waiting. “But it’s also very encouraging to see how many people are serving to help us get inside.”

“We really thank God that we have a shelter, that we have a safe place,” she said.

The demand for shelters in parts of the state suddenly increased Saturday morning as residents woke to find Irma’s expected path had changed.

Anthony Clarizio, the director of ElderCare of Alachua County in Gainesville, Florida, – which has become a special needs shelter – told CNN’s Kaylee Hartung just a couple of dozen people arrived when the shelter opened Friday.

“And then this morning, when everybody woke up and saw the storm had shifted more to the west. … It’s just been registration all day,” Clarizio said. “Vans have been pulling up all day long and they have been registering people.”

More than 54,000 residents were in 320 shelters across Florida, the governor’s office said Saturday. More shelters were expected to open throughout the day.

On the road

On Friday, motorists braved clogged roads, backups and slowdowns to get out. Drivers waited for hours at gas stations, some of which ran out of fuel. The Florida Highway Patrol escorted fuel tankers so they could reach and resupply gas stations, the agency said.

Travel hot spots included Interstates 10, 95 and 75, and Florida’s Turnpike. Troopers monitored roadways, stepping in to help after fender benders and with disabled cars and trucks.