Hurricane Irma is unleashing powerful winds and heavy rains on Cuba as it churns toward the U.S. state of Florida after killing at least 22 people and inflicting catastrophic destruction elsewhere.
In addition to Cuba, U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) hurricane warnings are in effect for the Florida peninsula and the Florida Keys.
The NHC says Irma is moving west northwest along the northern coast of Cuba and is expected to shift to the northwest later Saturday before turning north northwest Saturday night or early Sunday.
The storm, one of the strongest in recorded history, is projected to begin pounding the Florida Keys Sunday morning and approach the southwestern coast of Florida Sunday afternoon.
Irma was weakened a bit by Cuba’s terrain but it remains a very powerful Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 215 kilometers per hour. Forecasters expect the hurricane to regain strength as it moves past Cuba and remain a powerful force as it approaches Florida.
As Hurricane Irma eyes Florida, officials there warned millions of people that time is running out to evacuate.
Florida has asked 5.6 million people — more than one-quarter of the state’s population — to evacuate ahead of the hurricane’s expected landfall on Sunday.
Florida Governor Rick Scott characterized Irma as “a catastrophic storm that this state has never seen before,” noting that the storm is wider than the state of Florida.
Scott warned, “We are running out of time. The storm is almost here.”
Alp Inal, a businessman in the southeastern Florida city of Miami, told VOA’s Turkish Service the city looks like a ghost town as most people heeded warnings to evacuate.
“South Beach, midtown all these areas are empty. People are fleeing the city by car or by plane if they can find tickets to anywhere. You cannot find gasoline at gas stations and more than half of the gas stations in Miami are not operational,” Inal said.
He said his family is flying to Boston because it is the only place they could get plane tickets to. “We searched for tickets to New York, Washington, Atlanta and Nashville, but we couldn’t find any,” he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his Cabinet are to meet Saturday at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland to discuss the hurricane.
“It’s a really bad one, but we’re prepared at the highest level. Hopefully, everything will be well,” Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn Friday before departing for Camp David.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert was asked during a White House media briefing Friday about his greatest concern. “We’re worried about the fuel shortages,” he replied, noting five or six oil refineries in Texas are still out of operation due to damage from Hurricane Harvey last week.
Destruction in Caribbean
Enroute to Cuba and Florida, Irma ripped through 160-square-kilometer Barbuda, prompting Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda to say the island was now “rubble.”
The prime minister estimates about 95 percent of all the buildings on Barbuda were either destroyed or damaged.
The island nation is now bracing for impact from Category 4 Hurricane Jose.
On the island of St. Martin, shared by France and the Netherlands, there are “scenes of pillaging” as people loot stores and take to the streets in search of food and water, according to Annick Girardin, France’s minister for overseas territories.
It could be up to six months before all power is restored on cash-strapped Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where Irma knocked out power to more than one million people.
Irma also lashed Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, with fierce winds and heavy rain, but spared those two countries a direct hit.
The U.S. Defense Department has deployed three Navy ships, about two dozen aircraft and hundreds of Marines to help with recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
After taking an aerial tour Friday of the destruction on St. John and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp simply said, “It’s just bad.”
Mapp said St. John seemed to have been “whacked harder” by the storm’s strong winds, causing “structural collapses.”
Four deaths were reported in the U.S. Virgin Islands, while there was widespread destruction on St. Thomas, including its hospital, port and sewage treatment plant. | via voanews
Mehmet Sumer from VOA’s Turkish Service contributed to this report.