WASHINGTON – Hurricane Irma left a wake of devastation in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean late Thursday and early Friday, shredding homes and weather records and leaving at least 12 people dead as it continues its march toward the U.S. mainland where up to a million people were told to flee.
The evacuation of coastal areas of Florida and neighboring Georgia was the biggest seen in the U.S. in a dozen years, as Brock Long, head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned: “It will be truly devastating.
“The entire southeastern United States better wake up and pay attention.”
The hurricane struck land as a Category 5 storm on Wednesday in Barbuda, and then passed through St. Martin and Anguilla. Damage was limited in Puerto Rico, although much of the population of 3.4 million lost electrical power and at least 56,000 were without water.
At least two people were killed in Puerto Rico. Governor Ricardo Rossello activated the National Guard and opened storm shelters sufficient for up to 62,000 people.
Four people died on St. Martin, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, one on Anguilla and one on Barbuda, officials said — putting the total at 10 so far.
The Red Cross estimated that 1.2 million people in the eastern islands have been affected by the storm, and 26 million more, in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, could be exposed to winds and rainfall. The hurricane is expected to reach the U.S. mainland by Saturday.
The Bahamas ordered evacuations on its six southernmost islands, reducing the casualty count. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis called it “the largest such evacuation in the history of the country’ of 390,000 people.
St. Martin, a pristine island resort divided between France and the Netherlands, also suffered the full fury of the storm.
France said four had died and 50 were injured, two of them seriously. Sixty percent of homes were so damaged that they were uninhabitable.
The Netherlands said the storm killed at least one person and injured several others on the Dutch part of St Martin.
The Netherlands said it was racing to provide food and water for 40,000 people over the next five days, while France said more than 100,000 packages of combat rations were en route.
Britain said it was sending two warships to help victims in the Caribbean, and earmarking $41 million in aid.
Poor Haitians were left to face Irma’s fury alone as authorities showed little sign of preparing for what forecasters said could be a catastrophic event.
Two people were injured when an uprooted coconut tree crashed onto their home near Cap-Haitien, authorities said, adding that the situation was dire in northeastern Ouanaminthe after the adjoining Massacre River overflowed, cutting off food supplies from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Cuba moved 10,000 foreign tourists from beach resorts in the exposed part of the island, and hiked its disaster alert level to maximum.
Florida is expecting to face the brunt of the storm from Friday night, with forecasters warning of sea-level surges of up to 25 feet (almost eight meters) above normal tide levels.
Tourists in the popular Key West islands were packing their bags on a mandatory evacuation order, with a similar order for residents due to follow.
In its westward rampage, Irma packed winds of up to 185 miles per hour (295 kilometers per hour), an intensity that it sustained for 33 hours – the longest of any storm since satellite monitoring began in the 1970s.
Irma was downgraded to a Category 4 storm early Friday, as its winds have slowed slightly. Hurricane and tropical storm warnings have been discontinued for Haiti, the NHC said.
It remains unclear if Irma will travel up through the center of Florida, or along its Gulf or Atlantic coasts, but its track has shifted slightly to the west. The NHC said the storm remains “extremely dangerous.”
Trump said he was “very concerned” about Irma, but added: “Florida is as well prepared as you can be for something like this, now it’s just a question of what happens.”
Irma hit the Caribbean as two other storms, Jose in the Atlantic Ocean and Katia in the Gulf of Mexico, were upgraded to hurricane status.
Katia, a Category One storm, is expected to hit the coast of the Mexican state of Veracruz before Friday.
Jose, following in the path of Irma and located east of the Lesser Antilles late Thursday, strengthened to a Category Three event, packing winds of up to 120 miles per hour, the US National Hurricane Center said.