A newly strengthened Hurricane Irma churned its way toward Florida on Saturday, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction across the Caribbean and prompting one of the largest emergency evacuations in American history.
At least 20 people were confirmed dead by Friday night, when the storm, again a Category 5, made landfall in Cuba, lashing the island’s northern coast with a direct hit.
The hurricane, which was downgraded to a Category 4 around 5 a.m. Eastern, is expected to reach South Florida by Saturday afternoon. About 5.6 million people — more than a quarter of the state’s population — have been ordered to leave their homes.
“If you have been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now,” Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference Friday evening. “Not tonight, not in an hour, now.”
Here’s the latest:
• The National Hurricane Center said that Irma remained “extremely dangerous.” The storm’s outer bands were hitting the Florida Keys on Saturday morning. The center warned of “life-threatening surge and wind” of 155 m.p.h.
• In addition to the evacuation order in Miami, one of the country’s largest evacuations, an additional 540,000 people were told to leave the Georgia coast. Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina have declared states of emergency.
• Irma became the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in Cuba since 1924.
• Hurricane Jose, upgraded to a Category 4, was barreling toward the Leeward Islands. On St. Martin, already devastated by Irma, Dutch Marines dropped fliers from a helicopter warning inhabitants to head to shelters.
• Hurricane Katia, which made landfall on Mexico’s east coast, was downgraded to a tropical storm, with winds of 45 m.p.h.
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Storm makes a direct hit on Cuba.
Hurricane Irma made landfall on Friday night in the Camagüey Archipelago in Cuba. The storm’s trajectory took many by surprise — Cuban meteorologists had not predicted a direct hit.
The eye of the storm, which was upgraded from a Category 4 hurricane, churned through the keys north of the main island at 11 p.m.
The storm not only put residents in peril, it also increased the prospect of economic damage: More than 50 hotels on the keys bring in tourists and much-needed hard currency for Cuba.
The fastest-growing sector of the island’s economy, tourism has ballooned since the United States and Cuba announced a plan to re-establish diplomatic relations.
Though braced for the worst, there had been a sense that Cuba would escape the scale of damage in other Caribbean islands.
The Esmeraldo Weather Center in Camagüey registered winds of more than 124 miles per hour before part of the weather gauge blew off. State media reported waves more than 16 feet high, and damage to hospitals, factories and warehouses.
Electricity along much of Cuba’s northern coast had been cut since Friday afternoon.
In Punta Alegre, a coastal village in Ciego de Ávila Province, fishermen used nets to tie their wooden houses to the ground. Fishing boats were nestled within thick mangrove to minimize destruction.
At 3 a.m. Saturday, the extent of the damage remained unclear, but state television provided glimpses. A local camera crew in the town of Ciego de Ávila broadcast footage of felled trees and smashed lampposts on the road outside the studio.
Close to one million people were evacuated before the storm hit Cuba. Tens of thousands of tourists were evacuated from resorts, shuttled inland in a convoy of buses flanked by police vehicles. The authorities also evacuated six dolphins by helicopter from a resort on the island of Cayo Guillermo.
The country made other preparations as well. Earlier in the week, the state went into overdrive to harvest rice and fruit early from low-lying areas of Granma Province, in the southeastern part of the island. Cattle were moved to higher ground throughout the country.
Schools and most businesses were closed in the east and center of the island. Trains, coaches and domestic air services were canceled.
Irma was forecast to move west, approaching the center of Cuba on Saturday evening.
Havana was expected to avoid the brunt of the storm, and the mood in the capital became less strained after meteorologists revised their projections. They now say Irma will cut north earlier than expected. The authorities in Havana are expecting flooding, however.
Residents of the capital have been boiling water, buying candles and stocking up on bread, just in case. — ED AUGUSTIN
Irma strikes the Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas
Irma lashed the southern Bahamas on Friday with intense winds and rain, leaving a trail of downed trees and power lines, damaged roofs, and scattered debris.
Mayaguana and Inagua were among the first Bahamian islands to feel the impact. “It was very loud,” said Marcus Sands, an assistant superintendent with the police in Abraham’s Bay, Mayaguana’s main settlement. “You could hear the debris flying around crashing into buildings.”.
The National Hurricane Center said the eye of the storm was expected to move just north of Cuba and the central Bahamas for the rest of Friday and Saturday.
Irma was predicted to dump 10 to 15 inches of rain on northern Cuba, with some areas seeing as much as 20 inches. The storm passed Baracoa, a town near Cuba’s eastern tip, on Friday morning, but wrought less havoc there than was expected. Cuban state media reported winds of about 90 m.p.h. and said that waves had towered over the city’s breakwater, causing localized flooding.
In the Turks and Caicos, Virginia Clerveaux, the director of Department of Disaster Management and Emergencies, said officials were assessing the damage, which included torn-off roofs, electricity outages and widespread flooding.
Irma is among the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years, according to the National Hurricane Center.