As Irma spins, Cuba evacuates ; Floridians empty stores
Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts and Floridians emptied stores of plywood and bottled water after Hurricane Irma left at least 20 people dead and thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands and spun towards Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.
The hurricane rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti and battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday with waves as high as 20 feet (6 metres). Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was unclear.
Irma also spun along the northern coast of Cuba, where thousands of tourists were evacuated from low-lying keys off the coast dotted with all-inclusive resorts. All residents of the area were under mandatory evacuation orders from the Cuban government, which was moving tens of thousands of people from vulnerable coastline.
Warships and planes were dispatched with food, water and troops after Irma smashed homes, schools and roads, laying waste to some of the world's most beautiful and exclusive tourist destinations. On the island of St Thomas, power lines and towers were toppled, leaves were stripped off plants and trees, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged and the harbour was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.
Thousands of tourists were trapped on St Martin, St Barts, and the Virgin Islands in the path of Category three Hurricane Jose, which threatened to roll in from the Atlantic and strike as early as Saturday.
Irma weakened from a Category five storm to Category four yesterday morning with maximum sustained winds near 150 mph (240 kph), but it remained a powerful hurricane. Florida braced for the onslaught, with forecasters warning that Irma could slam headlong into the Miami metropolitan area of six million people, punish the entire length of the state's Atlantic coast and move into Georgia and South Carolina.
More than a half-million people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to leave as Irma closed in with winds of 175 mph (280 kph). People rushed to board up their homes, take their boats out of the water and gas up their cars. With gasolene running out and tensions rising, the Florida Highway Patrol escorted tanker trucks sent to replenish gas stations.