CAIBARIEN, Cuba—Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts while 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 toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.
The hurricane rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti, then battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early today with waves as high as 20 feet (six 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.
Meanwhile, thousands of tourists were trapped on St. Martin, St. Barts, and the Virgin Islands in the path of Category 3 Hurricane Jose, which threatened to roll in from the Atlantic and strike as early as tomorrow.
Irma weakened from a Category 5 storm to Category 4 this morning, with maximum sustained winds near 150 m.p.h. (240 km/h), 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 m.p.h. (280 km/h).
People rushed to board up their homes, take their boats out of the water, and gas up their cars.
With gasoline running out and tensions rising, the Florida Highway Patrol escorted tanker trucks sent to replenish gas stations.
“It [the storm] is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said.
“Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” he warned.
Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, said Irma easily could prove to be the costliest storm in U.S. history.
The first islands hit by the storm were scenes of terrible destruction.
The storm had claimed at least 20 lives, including nine on the French Caribbean islands of St.-Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands, and three on the British island of Anguilla, Barbuda, and the Dutch side of St. Martin.
Officials on St. Thomas said they expected to find more bodies on the island, where authorities described the damage as catastrophic and said crews were struggling to reopen roads and restore power.
The hospital on St. Thomas was destroyed and dozens of patients were being evacuated to St. Croix and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Local officials said a U.S. Navy hospital ship was arriving as early as today to care for unknown numbers of injured while two Air Force C-130s transport planes were bringing in food and water.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. The primary focus for now is “making sure people have meals, water, and shelter,” he said.
“An event of this magnitude is very chilling,” Mapp added.
On St. Martin, an island split between the Dutch Sint Maarten and French St.-Martin, homes were splintered and road signs scattered by the fierce winds.
The cafes and clothing shops of the picturesque French seaside village of Marigot were submerged in brown floodwaters while people surveyed the wreckage from whatever shelter they could find.
The toll there could rise because rescue teams had yet to get a complete look at the damage.
Annick Girardin, minister for France's overseas territories, said today that there had been “scenes of pillaging” of televisions, as well as food and water on St. Martin.
She added police were working to restore order and ensure urgent care for victims.
Farther out in the Atlantic, meanwhile, Hurricane Jose strengthened into a Category 3 storm with 120 m.p.h. (195 km/h) winds.