Hurricane Irma hurtled north of the Caribbean on Friday, leaving catastrophic damage in its wake as it closed in on Florida, where it could slam into Miami this weekend.
The storm churned in the Atlantic between southeastern Cuba and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday morning, and is expected to move west toward central Cuba and the Bahamas.
Irma was downgraded to an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm on Friday, with winds reaching a sustained maximum of 150 mph, the US National Hurricane Center said. At its peak, Irma sustained maximum wind speeds of 185 mph, making it one of the strongest Atlantic storms on record.
At least 18 people were killed as Irma pummeled northern Caribbean islands such as Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people were left without power.
The Red Cross estimates that 1.2 million people have already been battered by the storm and warned that it poses a serious threat to millions more.
Irma is expected to remain at least a Category 4 hurricane until landfall in Florida this weekend, the hurricane center said.
It issued hurricane and storm surge warnings for South Florida on Thursday night. Mandatory evacuations have been issued for many counties in South Florida, where residents have begun a mass exodus.
Here are the latest developments
— Around 8 a.m. ET, Irma’s center was about 80 miles northeast of Cabo Lucrecia, Cuba, moving west-northwest with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. Hurricane-force winds could be felt as far as 70 miles from the center.
— Irma’s bands whipped the Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas overnight, and is forecast to move between the north coast of Cuba and the central Bahamas through Saturday.
— Irma led to at least 18 deaths in the Caribbean, including nine in French territories, one at the British overseas territory of Anguilla, one on Barbuda, four on the US Virgin Islands, and three in Puerto Rico. Officials didn’t specify which French Caribbean territories had nine deaths but earlier indicated some had been on the island of St. Martin.
— The three deaths in Puerto Rico were at least loosely linked to Irma. One person died from a fall while being taken to a shelter; another was killed in a car crash; a third died of electrocution, the governor said.
— Hurricane warnings are in effect for parts of Cuba, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas. Hurricane warnings also are in effect for South Florida, extending from Jupiter Inlet on the east coast, southward around the Florida Peninsula to Bonita Beach on the west. The warning includes the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.
— The Red Cross said as many as 26 million people could be exposed to destructive winds and torrential rain just in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.
— Both the French and Dutch portions of the island of St. Martin are suffering looting in the wake of Irma, authorities said.
The Bahamas, a nation of about 390,000, ordered evacuations ahead of Irma’s arrival for six southern islands — Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island.
Tourists and hundreds of thousands of residents have also been evacuated from parts of Cuba. Hotels on the northern coast that would usually be busy at this time of year were empty Friday, CNN’s Patrick Oppmann reported from Caibarien.
Some have been evacuated to bomb shelters built during the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s.
Devastation to islands
Irma brought heavy rain and powerful winds overnight to the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands.
Residents of the islands, a British overseas territory with a population of about 35,000, were told to stay put.
“Fifteen roofs have come off, and there’s damage to part of the roof of the hospital,” Gov. John Freeman told CNN on Thursday night. He said there was “quite a bit of damage” in the capital island of Grand Turk.
The UK Foreign Office said officials on the islands were working intensively on disaster preparedness and response.
“Some of these Turks and Caicos (Islands) will be completely overwashed,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
In Puerto Rico, about 56,680 customers were without water, with the island’s northeast hit the hardest, according to Jesus Poupart of the emergency operations center.
In the beachside area of Piñones near San Juan, Irma tore the roof off Cristian López’s fried-food restaurant. He said he wouldn’t be able to reopen the place for about five days.
“At least we are all alive,” he said.
Irma was expected to bring massive rainfall, which could cause flash floods and mudslides in parts of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos islands, the Bahamas and Cuba as well as the US mainland.
After Irma, Hurricane Jose looms
The Caribbean islands already pummeled by Irma have begun assessing the damage, finding shredded buildings, battered cars and streets submerged in water.
Barbuda is barely habitable, with about 95% of its buildings damaged, said Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda.
Barbuda, which has 1,800 residents, is one of two major islands in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Browne estimated the damage will cost $100 million to fix.
“It looks like (a) garbage disposal,” Marlon Carr, a photographer who toured the island with Browne, told CNN on Thursday. “There was rubble and roof galvanized all over the island. It looked like some of the houses … were imploded on.”
Witnesses told him of “40-foot containers flying, animals flying” during the storm, he said.
Irma’s eye passed directly over Barbuda on Wednesday, and now the northeastern Caribbean nation is anxiously watching Hurricane Jose to the east, which has strengthened to a Category 3 storm.
Antigua and Barbuda are under a hurricane watch for Jose, which could pass close to those islands Saturday. The government has called for voluntary evacuations from Barbuda, Browne said.
The island of St. Martin was also badly hit, with about 50 people reported injured.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the looting situation in St. Maarten, the Dutch portion of the island, as serious, a spokesman for his office said Friday.
Local authorities, in collaboration with the Dutch military, are restoring order on the island, the spokesman said.
The airport in St. Maarten is to reopen for military use only, with the focus on bringing help and personnel to the island, he said.
France’s overseas territories minister, Annick Girardin, also confirmed looting in the French portion of St. Martin.
“Our worst fears have played out in Barbuda and elsewhere,” said Walter Cotte, regional director for the Americas for the Red Cross. “We can’t yet assess the full extent of damage, but we expect that the Red Cross will be delivering extensive support to many thousands over the coming weeks and months.”
Florida and the Southeast prepare for Irma
The National Hurricane Center warned Thursday that it had become more likely that Irma would “make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state.”
It warned of possible storm surges that could bring 5 to 10 feet of water above ground on Florida’s coast.
The hurricane center forecast moved the most likely path of the eye of the storm to the west, which means Miami could take a major hit.
“This storm has the potential to catastrophically devastate our state, and you have to take this seriously,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned.
Scott urged residents to be prepared regardless of which coast they live on. “This is not a storm you can sit and wait through,” he said.
Scott said others in Florida need to watch Irma’s path and be ready to move to shelters for safety if necessary. Schools will be closed Friday.
Evacuees stocked up on supplies, waited for hours at gas stations and sat through massive traffic jams.
Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi told residents in the Florida Keys that they need to heed the evacuation order and leave.
Florida is not the only state preparing for possible impact. Some computer models show Irma potentially threatening Georgia and South Carolina.
Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 30 counties and is ordering evacuations for people in the Savannah area and everywhere along the coast east of Interstate 95, starting Saturday.
The governors of North and South Carolina also declared states of emergency.