Irma menaces Bahamas and Cuba, on course toward Florida

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Irma menaced Cuba and the Bahamas on Friday as it drove toward Florida after lashing the Caribbean with devastatingly high winds, killing 21 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 for 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.

RELATED: Hurricane Irma's wrath from above

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Hurricane Irma's wrath from above
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Hurricane Irma's wrath from above
Hurricane Irma (L) and Hurricane Jose are pictured in the Atlantic Ocean in this September 7, 2017 NOAA satellite handout photo. NOAA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma on Maho beach, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma, rampaging across the Caribbean, has produced sustained winds at 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded, France's weather service said on September 7. / AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY / GERBEN VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
CARIBBEAN SEA - SEPTEMBER 7: In this NOAA handout image, NOAA's GOES satellite shows Hurricane Irma as it moves towards the Florida Coast in the Caribbean Sea taken at 20:00 UTC on September 07, 2017. The state of Florida is in the track of where the hurricane may make landfall. (Photo by NOAA GOES Project via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma, rampaging across the Caribbean, has produced sustained winds at 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded, France's weather service said on September 7. / AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY AND AFP PHOTO / GERBEN VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma, rampaging across the Caribbean, has produced sustained winds at 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded, France's weather service said on September 7. / AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY AND AFP PHOTO / GERBEN VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
CARIBBEAN SEA - SEPTEMBER 7: In this NOAA handout image, NOAA's GOES satellite shows Hurricane Irma as it moves towards the Florida Coast in the Caribbean Sea taken at 16:15 UTC on September 07, 2017. Irma is a category 5 hurricane and will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The state of Florida is in the track of where the hurricane may make landfall. (Photo by NOAA GOES Project via Getty Images)
CARIBBEAN - AUGUST 25: In this NOAA handout image, NOAA's GOES satellite shows Hurricane Irma as it makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean in to the Caribbean -- a category 5 storm with winds as high as 185 miles per hour -- today at about 3:15 pm (eastern), September 6, 2017. (Photo by NASA/NOAA GOES Project via Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma, rampaging across the Caribbean, has produced sustained winds at 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded, France's weather service said on September 7. / AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY / GERBEN VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma, rampaging across the Caribbean, has produced sustained winds at 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded, France's weather service said on September 7. / AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY / GERBEN VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma, on the Princess Juliana International Airport and Simpson Bay Beach, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma, rampaging across the Caribbean, has produced sustained winds at 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded, France's weather service said on September 7. / AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY / GERBEN VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / The erroneous mention appearing in the metadata of this photo by GERBEN VAN ES has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [SIMPSON BAY BEACH] instead of [MAHO BEACH. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention from all your online services and delete it from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma sowed a trail of deadly devastation through the Caribbean on Wednesday, reducing to rubble the tropical islands of Barbuda and St Martin. / AFP PHOTO / ANP / Gerben van Es / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - NO ARCHIVES - NO SALE- DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma, rampaging across the Caribbean, has produced sustained winds at 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded, France's weather service said on September 7. / AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY / GERBEN VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma sowed a trail of deadly devastation through the Caribbean on Wednesday, reducing to rubble the tropical islands of Barbuda and St Martin. / AFP PHOTO / ANP / Gerben van Es / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - NO ARCHIVES - NO SALE- DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma sowed a trail of deadly devastation through the Caribbean on Wednesday, reducing to rubble the tropical islands of Barbuda and St Martin. / AFP PHOTO / ANP / Gerben van Es / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - NO ARCHIVES - NO SALE- DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photography taken and released by the Dutch department of Defense on September 6, 2017 shows the damage of Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. Hurricane Irma sowed a trail of deadly devastation through the Caribbean on Wednesday, reducing to rubble the tropical islands of Barbuda and St Martin. / AFP PHOTO / ANP / Gerben VAN ES / Netherlands OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / DUTCH DEFENSE MINISTRY/GERBEN VAN ES' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - NO ARCHIVES - NO SALE- DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read GERBEN VAN ES/AFP/Getty Images)
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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 270 miles (435 km) east of Caibarien on Cuba's central-north coast, and 405 miles (655 km) southeast of Miami, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory at 11 a.m EDT (1500 GMT) on Friday. Hurricane conditions were spreading westward over parts of Cuba and the central Bahamas.

The storm 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 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 150 miles per hour (240 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.

The storm was predicted to slam southern Florida on Sunday.

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 the Bahamas, the government evacuated most people from the southern islands before the storm hit, with some 1,200 people airlifted to the capital, Nassau.

 

"DON'T BE COMPLACENT"

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 on the roads.

"We're doing everything we can to get the fuel out," to gas stations, including police escorts, Scott told ABC's "Good Morning America" program.

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.

Along with high winds, the NHC predicted dangerous storm surge flooding in Florida, with as much as 12 feet (3.5) meters in the state's southwest.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said authorities have 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.

Kenneth Weipert, a stranded tourist from Scotland who was getting cash from an ATM at a boarded-up bank, said he had made multiple attempts to book a flight, with no luck.

"We have never been through anything like this before and we are quite worried about it," said Weipert. "We are in the hotel and the hotel is hurricane-proof, allegedly," he added.

In Palm Beach, the waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate owned by 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. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe added his state on Friday to those under a state of emergency, saying it looked increasingly likely that Virginia could see "significant impacts" from Irma.

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.

RELATED: Hurricane Irma rocks the Caribbean

27 PHOTOS
Hurricane Irma rocks the Caribbean
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Hurricane Irma rocks the Caribbean

Hurricane Irma first hit Barbuda, a tiny Caribbean island. It was said to be more than 90% destroyed by the storm, with some of the damage evident in these local TV images.

Photo Credit: ABC News

Photo Credit: ABC News

Photo Credit: ABC News

The winds were able to mangle this metal broadcast tower.

Photo Credit: ABC News

Antigua, Barbbuda's sister island, was hit at a similar time. Flooding blocked many roads as seen in this photo. 

"Climate change is real in the Caribbean we are living with the consequences of climate change," Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Barbuda and Antigua, told the BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme, as cited by the Guardian. It is unfortunate that there are some who see it differently."

(GEMMA HANDY/AFP/Getty Images)

St. Martin, one of the Leeward Islands, was next in Irma's path, and it was likewise devastated.

Then came the British Virgin Islands. This video shows the "eye wall" — the most intense part of the storm — striking land.

 Unmute the video to hear the intense sound of wind.

After that the storm approached the US territory of Puerto Rico.

The island is larger and had a lot more photographers than the others, so there are more pictures of the storm in action.

 (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

The winds knocked down trees.

REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Waves battered ships that couldn't be brought back to port in time.

 REUTERS/Alvin Baez

The winds made it tough to walk.

REUTERS/Alvin Baez

As night fell, the island flooded.

(Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

Rescuers checked flooded cars in case anybody had not managed to escape.

 (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

No deaths have been reported in Puerto Rico so far.

 (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

Irma proceeded toward the northern coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday.

 Unmute the video above to listen to the strength of the rainfall.

A home was flattened to a pile in Nagua, a city in the north east of the island.

REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Tree trunks also lay among the debris.

 REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Further west on the island, a stadium lighting tower toppled over in Puerto Plata, a beach city on the Dominican Republic's northern coast.

 REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

An entire metal roof fell off onto the city's streets.

 REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Haiti, which is to the west of the Dominican Republic, was also hit. These palm trees in Cap-Haitien, a port city on Haiti's north coast, shows the wind's strength.

 REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Streets were flooded.

 REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

The hurricane then moved onto the Turks and Caicos islands.

This video shows the scale of the flooding.

Residents should continue to expect wind, storms, and rain on the islands through Saturday, the National Hurricane Center warned on Friday.

As of early Friday morning local time, Irma's death toll was 14, according to Reuters.

Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for the US Virgin Islands, said the death toll was expected to rise, the Guardian reported.

 (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

Despite the obvious devastation, there were moments of beauty in the storm as well.

This photo was captured by US Air Force "Hurricane Hunter" planes, which fly into storms to collect the data that informs forecasts and emergency responses on the ground.​​​​​​​

Irma has begun to move through the south east of the Bahamas, Reuters reported. Cuba and Florida are next. Here is the National Hurricane Center's latest prediction map:

Detainees in Cuba's Guantánamo Bay maximum security prison will not be evacuated, a spokesman for the US Department of Defense, told Newsweek. Residents of the base will also be expected to "stay put and ride out the storm," the Miami Herald quoted another Pentagon spokesman as saying.

There is a chance that Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina may feel Irma's wrath as well, but it remains too early for specifics, the National Hurricane Center said on Friday.

It also downgraded Irma from a Category 5 to a Category 4 hurricane, but warned that two neighbouring hurricanes — Jose and Katia — have gained strength.

Some businesses in Florida have prepared for Irma's arrival by boarding up their windows.

Here, a man in North Miami Beach walks past a still-open business, which had boarded up its storefront with plywood.

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

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HURRICANE JOSE REACHES CATEGORY 4

As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged a series of small islands in the northeast Caribbean, including Barbuda, 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.

Jose, expected to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday, was an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 150 mph (240 kph), 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 nine people were killed, at least seven were missing, and 112 others were injured in St. Barthelemy and the French part of 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.

The Dutch government on Friday raised its estimate of casualties on its part of St. Martin to two dead and 43 wounded.

Four people died in the U.S. Virgin islands, a government spokesman said, and a major hospital was badly damaged.

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 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 Haitian side. One man was reported missing after trying to cross a river in Haiti's Central Plateau region, and the government said some 10,000 people were in emergency shelters.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Delana Isles in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Sarah Marsh in Caibarien, Cuba,; Marc Frank in Havana, Bernie Woodall in Ft. Lauderdale, Ben Gruber and Andy Sullivan in Miami, Bate Felix, Richard Lough and Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Neil Hartnell in Nassau, Bahamas,; Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu and David Shepardson in Washington, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Larry King and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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