Hurricane Irma ploughed into the Cuban coast on Saturday, hitting the Camagüey Archipelago with 160mph winds.
One of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, Irma has killed at least 22 people in the eastern Caribbean and devastated islands including Barbuda and Sint Maarten. Although winds dropped to 130mph by Saturday morning they are forecast to strengthen again before the full force of Irma hits south-west Florida and Tampa on Sunday.
Irma, currently a category four storm is forecast to bring dangerous storm surges of up to 10 feet to parts of Cuba’s northern coast and the central and northwestern Bahamas.
Choppy seas, grey skies, sheets of rain, bending palm trees, huge waves crashing over sea walls and downed power lines filled state-run television’s evening news cast, Reuters reported.
Andrew Provan, a British tourist in Varadero on the north coast of Cuba, said it had been impossible to sleep on Friday night as winds rose. “Wind is howling outside. Very noisy, all the windows rattling, no sleep at all,” he said.
Meteorologists warned that by Saturday morning scenes of far greater devastation were likely to emerge as the storm worked its way west along Cuba’s northern coast before turning north towards Florida.
US authorities have ordered 5.6m people — more than a quarter of the Florida’s population — to evacuate.
As many as 8.5m properties in Florida are at significant risk of wind damage and 3.4m are at risk from the storm surge, according to Corelogic.
“This is as real as it gets. Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe. You still have time to evacuate,” the US National Weather Service warned in a tweet. “If you are planning to leave and do not leave tonight, you will have to ride out this extremely dangerous storm at your own risk,” said Rick Scott, Florida’s governor.
After flight tracking sites showed an exodus of aircraft flying north, Miami International Airport closed and cancelled all flights for Saturday and Sunday. Television networks showed images of Florida highways jammed with cars driving away from what President Donald Trump called “a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential”.
On Saturday morning three Delta Air Lines 747s were put into domestic service to evacuate people from Orlando International Airport, Flightradar24 said.
By Saturday morning damaging winds were affecting Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and South Miami.
Some residents chose to ignore the evacuation orders, emptying supermarket shelves as they stocked up to try to see through the storms in their own homes or filling shelters provided by local authorities.
In a sign of the potential disruption to come, Florida Power & Light, the local utility company, warned that 4.1m homes could face “extended power outages”. The company said it would shut down its Turkey Point and St Lucie nuclear power plants before the strongest winds arrived.
Further east, Hurricane Jose was approaching the northern Leeward Islands at close to category five strength on Friday night, with winds of up to 155 miles per hour.
France has deployed more than 1,000 civilian and military personnel to help with recovery efforts in its overseas island territories of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where damage to property is estimated at €1.2bn. Jacques Witkowski, France’s Director of Public Safety, said the teams would also help evacuate residents ahead of Hurricane Jose, which is expected to hit islands in the Caribbean later on Saturday.
- The UK has pledged a £32m cash injection to its territories in the region.
- The category one Hurricane Katia has begun stalling over Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains after it made landfall north of Tecolutla, Mexico, with winds of about 75mph. Two people died in mudslides in the state capital, Xalapa. Miguel Ángel Yunes, governor, appealed to people living in low-lying areas to move to shelters. He said the risk remained that rivers, swollen by heavy rains, could burst their banks. “The danger has not yet passed,” he said.
- Dutch marines have dropped flyers from a helicopter warning beleaguered inhabitants on the devastated nation of St Maarten to head to shelters as Hurricane Jose barrels through the Caribbean.