(Reuters) – Hurricane Irma walloped Cuba’s northern coast on Saturday as a Category 5 storm, as millions of Florida residents were ordered to evacuate after the storm killed 21 people in the eastern Caribbean and left catastrophic destruction in its wake.
Irma struck Camaguey Archipelago with 160 mph (260 kph) winds early on Saturday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, after upgrading the storm late on Friday to its most powerful classification.
Irma, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, was expected to hit Florida on Sunday morning, bringing massive damage from wind and flooding to the fourth-largest state by population.
The scenes along Cuba’s north central coast were gradually coming to resemble the horrors of those of other Caribbean islands over the last week as Irma barreled in for a direct hit at Ciego de Avila province around midnight.
Choppy seas, grey skies, sheets of rain, bending palm trees, huge waves crashing over sea walls and downed power lines filled state-run television’s evening news cast.
Irma was forecast to bring dangerous storm surges of up to 10 feet (3 meters) to parts of Cuba’s northern coast and the central and northwestern Bahamas.
Meteorologists warned that by Saturday morning scenes of far greater devastation were sure to emerge as Irma worked her way along the northern coast westward through Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara provinces where it is forecast to turn north toward Florida.
Irma was about 275 miles (440 km) south-southeast of Miami, the NHC said in its latest advisory.
With the storm barreling toward the United States, officials ordered an historic evacuation in Florida that has been made more difficult by clogged highways, gasoline shortages and the challenge of moving older people.
The United States has been hit by only three Category 5 storms since 1851, and Irma is far larger than the last one in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“We are running out of time. If you are in an evacuation zone, you need to go now. This is a catastrophic storm like our state has never seen,” Governor Rick Scott told reporters.
A total of 5.6 million people, or 25 percent of the state’s population, were ordered to evacuate Florida, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in a videotaped statement that Irma was “a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential” and called on people to heed recommendations from government officials and law enforcement. In Palm Beach, Trump’s waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate was ordered evacuated.
‘DON‘T BE COMPLACENT’
Irma was set to hit the United States two weeks after Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, struck Texas, killing about 60 people and causing property damage estimated at up to $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana. Officials were preparing a massive response, the head of FEMA said.
About 9 million people in Florida may lose power, some for weeks, said Florida Power & Light Co, which serves almost half of the state’s 20.6 million residents.
Amid the exodus, nearly one-third of all gas stations in Florida’s metropolitan areas were out of gasoline, with scattered outages in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, according to Gasbuddy.com, a retail fuel price tracking service.
Mandatory evacuations on Georgia’s Atlantic coast and some of South Carolina’s barrier islands were due to begin on Saturday. Virginia and Alabama were under states of emergency.
The governors of North and South Carolina warned residents to remain on guard even as the storm took a more westward track, saying their states still could experience severe weather, including heavy rain and flash flooding, early next week.
HURRICANE JOSE REACHES CATEGORY 4
As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged small islands in the northeastern Caribbean, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.
But even as they came to grips with the massive destruction, residents of the islands faced the threat of another major storm, Hurricane Jose.
Jose, expected to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday, was an extremely dangerous storm nearing Category 5 status, with winds of up to 150 mph (240 kph), the NHC said on Friday.
Reporting by Makini Brice in Cap-Haitien, Haiti; Delana Isles in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Sarah Marsh in Caibarien, Cuba; Marc Frank in Havana; Bernie Woodall in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Ben Gruber and Andy Sullivan in Miami; Bate Felix, Richard Lough and Dominique Vidalon in Paris; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Neil Hartnell in Nassau, Bahamas; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Kim Coghill