Hurricane Irma lashed Cuba and the Bahamas as it drove toward Florida on Friday after hitting the eastern Caribbean with its devastatingly high winds, killing 21 people and leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake. Officials say 5.6 million people have been asked to evacuate Florida ahead of the storm.
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"Obviously Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States," said the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator (FEMA) Brock Long at a press conference Friday morning. "We're going to have a couple rough days."
The National Hurricane Center is warning Floridians that even if the storm seems to moving away from the East Coast in the latest tracks, don't get complacent.
"This is a storm that will kill you if you don't get out of the way," said National Hurricane Center meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
Feltgen says the storm has a really wide eye, with hurricane-force winds that cover the entire Florida peninsula and potentially deadly storm surges on both coasts.
As Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, was expected to hit Florida on Sunday, Governor Rick Scott starkly warned 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 that the storm's effects would be felt from coast to coast in the state.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in a videotaped statement that Irma was "a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential," and called on people to heed recommendations from government officials and law enforcement.
Irma was about 225 miles (360 km) east of Caibarien on Cuba's central-north coast, and 380 miles (610 km) southeast of Miami, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) on Friday.
Hurricane conditions were spreading westward over parts of Cuba and the central Bahamas as the storm skirted near Cuba's northern coast.The storm earlier pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands after saturating the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The storm was downgraded from a rare 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 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), the NHC said.
Irma was forecast to bring dangerous storm surges of up to 20 feet (6 meters) to the southeastern and central Bahamas, and up to 10 feet (3 meters) on parts of Cuba's northern coast.
Cuban television broadcast footage of the sea flooding coastal towns in the eastern provinces of Guantanamo and Holguin, with waves reaching 20 feet (6 meters). With the storm still well offshore, flooding from the storm surge and inland from rain and swollen streams and rivers were the main concerns.
As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged small islands in the northeastern Caribbean, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees. The death toll from Irma has risen to 21 as emergency services gained access to remote areas.
Irma was set to hit the United States two weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, killing about 60 people and causing property damage estimated at as much as $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana. Officials were preparing a massive response, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.
In several television 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.
Amid the exodus, 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.
In Miami-Dade County alone, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said authorities had asked about 660,000 residents to evacuate, adding this was the largest evacuation he could remember in the county.U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said the state was far more prepared now than in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida.
Supermarkets in Miami were full of shoppers picking up last-minute supplies and food, and long lines of cars wrapped around the few gas stations still open.