Hurricane Irma Menaces Bahamas and Cuba, on Course Toward Florida

HAVANA (Reuters) -
Hurricane Irma
Hurricane Irma (R) is passing the eastern end of Cuba and driving toward Florida, as Hurricane Katia (L), which does not pose a threat to the U.S., hits the Gulf Coast of Mexico, in a satellite image taken at 1:00 p.m. EDT on Friday. (NASA/Handout via Reuters)

Hurricane Irma menaced Cuba and the Bahamas on Friday as it drove toward Florida after lashing the Caribbean with devastatingly high winds, killing 19 people and leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake.

As Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, bore down on Florida, Governor Rick Scott issued a stark warning to residents to get out if they were in evacuation zones.

“We are running out of time. If you are in an evacuation zone, you need to go now. This is a catastrophic storm like our state has never seen,” Scott told reporters, adding the storm’s effects would be felt from coast to coast.

Irma was about 270 miles east of Caibarien on Cuba’s central-north coast, and 405 miles southeast of Miami, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory at 11 a.m EDT on Friday. Hurricane conditions were spreading westward over parts of Cuba and the central Bahamas.

Hurricane Irma
Hurricane damage on the island of Barbuda Thursday. (AP Photo/Anika E. Kentish)

Irma pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands after saturating the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The “extremely dangerous” storm was downgraded from a Category 5, the top of the scale of hurricane intensity, to a Category 4 early Friday but it was still carrying winds as strong as 150 miles per hour, the NHC said.

Irma was forecast to bring dangerous storm surges of up to 20 feet to the southeastern and central Bahamas, and up to 10 feet on parts of Cuba’s northern coast. The storm was predicted to slam southern Florida on Sunday.

Hurricane Irma
Hurricane damage on the U.S. Virgin Islands on Thursday. (AP Photo/Ian Brown)

Cuba, where the Communist government has traditionally made rigorous preparations when the island is threatened by storms, was at a near standstill as Irma began to drive up the northern coast from east to west offshore.

Schools and most businesses were closed, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated, and train, bus and domestic air services around the island were canceled. Airports were closing to international flights as conditions warranted.

Irma was forecast to move closer to land as it approached the center of Cuba later in the day and on Saturday, when it could seriously damage resorts on vulnerable keys. Tourists, and even the dolphins that entertain them, were evacuated. The storm was then predicted to veer north, sparing western Cuba and Havana.

In the Cuban fishing town of Caibarien, residents secured their roofs and moved belongings from low-lying coastal areas to houses higher up inland as the skies clouded over. Most said they were worried but well prepared.

Esteban Reyes, 65, was pushing his bicycle taxi laden with a mattress, iron and DVD player. “We are used to storms but I’m still a bit scared. But the government has taught us to be prepared and help one another,” he said.

In several TV interviews early Friday, Florida’s governor pleaded with residents to leave areas designated for evacuation, although he acknowledged frustration with buying gas and handling bumper-to-bumper traffic on the roads.

“We’re doing everything we can to get the fuel out,” to gas stations, including police escorts, Scott told ABC.

Nearly one-third of all gas stations in Florida’s metropolitan areas were out of gasoline, according to Gasbuddy.com, a retail fuel price tracking service.

“Don’t be complacent. We’re not sure exactly where this is going to go,” he told CBS, adding that he expected to see 5-10 feet of storm surge.

Hurricane Irma
Shoppers encounter empty bread shelves at a supermarket in Kissimmee, Florida, on Friday, ahead of Hurricane Irma. (Reuters/Gregg Newton)

Downtown Miami, under an evacuation order, appeared to have emptied out on Friday morning, with little traffic on the streets and public parking lots empty.

In Palm Beach, the waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate owned by President Donald Trump was ordered evacuated, media reported. Trump also owns property on the French side of St. Martin, a French-Dutch island devastated by the storm.

A mandatory evacuation on Georgia’s Atlantic coast was due to begin on Saturday, Governor Nathan Deal said.

The storm was expected to “devastate” part of the United States and officials were preparing a massive response, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said.

Hurricane Irma
Sandbags sit outside a police station in Daytona Beach, Florida, as a worker secures the grounds of a hotel along the beach on Friday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The storm comes two weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, claiming around 60 lives and causing property damage estimated at as much as $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana.

U.S. stocks were little changed on Friday as investors assessed the financial impact of Harvey and tracked Irma. The three major Wall Street indexes were on track to end the week lower, with many economists forecasting that third-quarter gross domestic product will take a hit due to the hurricanes.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) said the state was far more prepared now than when it was hit by devastating Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He also noted that local, state and federal authorities appeared more coordinated after learning the lessons of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

“I think Florida is prepared, but when you get 155 plus mile per hour winds nobody is going to be prepared for that kind of destruction,” Nelson told MSNBC.

As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged a series of small islands in the northeast Caribbean, including Barbuda, the French-Dutch island of St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.

A Reuters witness described the roof and walls of a solidly built house shaking hard as the storm rocked the island of Providenciales.

Even as they came to grips with the massive destruction, residents of the islands hit hardest by Irma faced the threat of another major storm: Hurricane Jose. Expected to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday, Jose is an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 150 mph, the NHC said on Friday.

The death toll from Irma has risen as emergency services got access to remote areas.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said on Friday that nine people were killed, at least seven were missing, and 112 others were injured after the hurricane crashed into St. Barthelemy and St. Martin.

France said it was deploying hundreds more police and other emergency personnel to the islands as it ramped up its response to the devastation in its overseas territories.

Four people died in the U.S. Virgin islands, a government spokesman said, and a major hospital was badly damaged by the wind. A U.S. amphibious assault ship arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Thursday and sent helicopters for medical evacuations from the destroyed hospital.

The eastern Caribbean island of Barbuda was reduced to “rubble,” and one person died, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said. In the British overseas territory of Anguilla, another person was killed and the hospital and airport were damaged, emergency service officials said.

Three people were killed in Puerto Rico and around two-thirds of the population had lost electricity, Governor Ricardo Rossello said after Irma grazed the U.S. territory’s northern coast. A surfer was also reported killed in Barbados.

The storm passed just to the north of the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, damaging roofs and causing flooding and power outages as it approached the impoverished Haitian side. A man was reported missing after trying to cross a river in Haiti’s Central Plateau region.