SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Fearsome Hurricane Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving at least 10 dead and thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees on a track today that could lead to a catastrophic strike on Florida.
The most potent Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever, Irma weakened only slightly this morning but remained a powerful Category 5 storm with winds of 180 m.p.h. (285 km/h), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
The storm increasingly was likely to rip into heavily-populated South Florida early Sunday, prompting the governor to declare an emergency and officials to impose mandatory evacuation orders for parts of the Miami metro area and the Florida Keys.
Forecasters said it could punish the entire Atlantic coast of Florida, then rage on into Georgia and South Carolina.
“This could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago,” said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, alluding to the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
French Interior minister Gerard Collomb told France Info radio that eight had died and 23 were injured in the country's Caribbean island territories.
He warned said the toll on Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy could be higher because rescue teams have yet to finish their inspection of the islands.
“The reconnaissance will really start at daybreak,” Collomb said.
At a news conference, Collomb also said 100,000 food rations have been sent to the islands—the equivalent of four days of supplies.
“It's a tragedy, we'll need to rebuild both islands,” he remarked.
“Most of the schools have been destroyed.”
French President Emmanuel Macron's office said he will go to the islands has soon as weather conditions permit.
Macron added France is “grief-stricken” by the devastation caused by Irma, and called for concerted efforts to tackle global warming and climate change to prevent similar future natural disasters.
In the United Kingdom, the government said Irma inflicted “severe and, in places, critical” damage to the British overseas territory of Anguilla.
Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan said the Caribbean island took the full force of the hurricane.
He told lawmakers today that the British Virgin islands also have suffered “severe damage.”
Irma blacked out much of Puerto Rico, raking the U.S. territory with heavy wind and rain while staying just out to sea.
It then headed early today toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
To the east, authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands devastated by the storm's record 185 m.p.h. (298 km/h) winds.
Communications were difficult with areas hit by Irma, and information on damage trickled out.
Nearly every building on Barbuda was damaged when the hurricane's core crossed almost directly over the island early yesterday and about 60 percent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press.
“It is just really a horrendous situation,” Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighbouring island.
He said roads and telecommunications systems were wrecked and recovery would take months, if not years.
A two-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm, Browne told the AP.
One death also was reported in the nearby island of Anguilla, where officials reported extensive damage to the airport, hospitals, shelters, and school.
As well, 90 percent of roads are impassible, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
The agency also reported “major damage” to houses and commercial buildings in the British Virgin Islands.
On St. Thomas in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours hunkered down with her husband and one-year-old daughter in a boarded-up basement apartment with no power as the storm raged outside.
They emerged to find the lush island in tatters. Many of their neighbours' homes were damaged and once-dense vegetation largely was gone.
“There are no leaves. It is crazy,” Strickling said.
"One of the things we loved about St. Thomas is that it was so green. And it's gone.
“It will take years for this community to get back on its feet,” she added.
Significant damage also was reported on St. Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control.
Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily-flooded.
France sent emergency food and water there and to the French island of St. Bart's, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out electricity.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said today the storm “caused widescale destruction of infrastructure, houses, and businesses.”
By this morning, the centre of the storm was about 180 km north of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and was moving west-northwest at near 28 km/h.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted Irma would remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as passes just to the north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti today, nears the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas by tonight, and then skirts Cuba tomorrow night into Saturday.
It then likely will head north toward Florida, where people were rushing to board up homes, fill cars with gasoline, and find a route to safety.