The powerful eye of Hurricane Irma has reached the Florida Keys. Hundreds of thousands are without power and more than 6 million people in Florida and Georgia have left home in one of the country’s largest evacuations.
The eye of Hurricane Irma smashed across the lower Florida Keys early on Sunday, packing maximum sustained wind speeds of 215 kmh (130 mph) and threatening dangerous storm surges.
The US National Hurricane Center said the Category 4 hurricane was forecast move over the lower Florida Keys, an archipelago off the southern Florida coast, then move off or along the west coast of Florida Sunday afternoon through Monday before stretching into Georgia.
The eye of the storm is now on track for a potential direct hit on the heavy populated Tampa Bay area, after models earlier in the week predicted it could hit west of Miami. The state issued a mandatory evacuation order for more than 6 million people across southern and western Florida, making it one of the largest US evacuations ever.
“While weakening is forecast, Irma is expected to remain a powerful hurricane as it moves through the Florida Keys and near the west coast of Florida,” the National Hurricane Center said.
“This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation,” it said.
Hurricane-force winds extend up to 100 km from the eye and tropical-force winds up to 335 km from the center.
More than 6 million people in Florida – over a quarter of the population – have been ordered to evacuate and another 540,000 people were told to leave the coast of the state of Georgia to Florida’s north, where the authorities have opened hundreds of shelters. More than 400,000 people in Florida have been left without power.
US President Donald Trump called Irma a “storm of enormous destructive power.”
“I ask everyone in the storm path to heed all instructions, get out of its way,” he said on Saturday. “Property is replaceable but lives are not and safety has to come first.”
Irma is one of the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and is expected to cover the whole state of Florida coast-to-coast. Forecasters have predicted a storm surges of up to 4.6 meters (15 feet) along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Florida Keys, which could flood thousands of homes.
CoreLogic, a consultant to insurers, estimated that almost 8.5 million Florida homes or commercial properties were at extreme, very high or high risk of wind damage from Irma.
Significant damage on Cuba, Bahamas escape
The destructive storm has killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean and left dozens more injured across several island nations.
More than a million people were evacuated in Cuba with the storm causing significant damage with waves up to 9 meters high reported with widespread flooding. Winds were so intense they reportedly damaged the gauge used to measure them.
State media reported that people took shelter in tunnels, caves and official emergency shelters. In the coastal town of Caibarien, the storm knocked down walls as tree branches, roof tiles and other debris fell onto streets.
The Bahamas had a close call, but ultimately escaped the worst of Irma’s destructive wrath, with no casualties or major infrastructure damages reported.
St. Martins and St. Barts hit again
Two other major storms have developed in the Caribbean, Hurricane Jose and Hurricane Katia.
Residents in the French overseas territories of St. Barts and parts of St. Martin had Hurricane Jose closing in on Saturday. Forecasters expected winds of up to 93 mph (150 kph), along with torrential rains and large waves. Some 1,105 workers have been deployed to the islands to help with recovery from the damage caused by Irma last week. St Martin is divided between France and the Netherlands.
The Dutch government estimated 70 percent of houses on its territory were badly damaged or destroyed, leaving many of the 40,000 residents reliant on public shelters as they faced Hurricane Jose.
France’s public insurance agency Caisse Central de Reassurance estimated damage at 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion) on infrastructure in the French territories.
France’s meteorological agency on Saturday issued its highest warning of a “dangerous event of exceptional intensity,” with winds that could reach 120 kph, and strong rains and high waves as Hurricane Jose bore down, three days after the islands were hit by Irma.
Barbuda beach wiped out
Barbuda saw a huge stretch of its 18-kilometer (11-mile) west coast beach wiped out by Hurricane Irma, which also destroyed 30 percent of all properties on the island. Hundreds of residents were transferred on Friday to the sister-island of Antigua ahead of Hurricane Jose.
Jose has followed the same path as Hurricane Irma and was upgraded to a Category 4 on Friday by the US National Hurricane Center. It is expected to move north and avoid hitting the United States.
Katia weakened to a tropical storm as it made landfall north of Tecolutla, Mexico on Friday evening, the US National Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters predicted Katia would continue to weaken, bringing some relief to the country after a powerful 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck on off the southern Pacific coast on Thursday leaving scores dead.
aw, bik/jm (AP, AFP)