Store owners boarded up their windows and families sandbagged their homes to join a mass exodus on Friday as Hurricane Irma churned toward Florida after cutting a deadly swath through the Caribbean.
After killing at least 19 people and devastating thousands of homes on a string of Caribbean islands, Irma made landfall in Cuba’s Camaguey Archipelago as a maximum-strength Category Five storm.
It had top winds swirling at 160 miles (260 kilometers) per hour and was bearing down on nearby Florida, with the eye of the storm just 300 miles south-southeast of Miami, according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).
Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew — which killed 65 people in 1992 — Florida’s governor said all of the state’s 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate.
“People have got to understand, if you’re in an evacuation zone, you should be very cautious, you should get out now,” Governor Rick Scott told CNN.
“This is a powerful storm bigger than our state.”
Bumper-to-bumper traffic snaked north out of the peninsula, with mattresses, gas cans and kayaks strapped to car roofs as residents heeded increasingly insistent warnings to get out.
“It’s not clear that it’s a survivable situation for anybody that is still there in the Keys,” acting NHC director Ed Rappaport said.
North of the Keys, in Miami Beach, Orlando Reyes, an 82-year-old Cuban-American, had suddenly to flee his assisted living facility.
“It is frightening,” he told AFP at a shelter in Miami.
“We had to leave without a cent, without taking a bath, or bringing anything.”
President Donald Trump warned residents in Irma’s path faced a threat of “epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen.
“Be safe and get out of its way, if possible,” he tweeted.
Roaring across the Caribbean, the monster storm claimed at least 19 lives as it laid waste to a series of tiny islands like Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin — where 60 percent of homes were wrecked and looting broke out — before slamming into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
“Houses are smashed, the airport is out of action, telephone and electricity poles are on the ground,” Olivier Toussaint, a resident of Saint Barthelemy, told AFP.
“Upside-down cars are in the cemeteries. Boats are sunk in the marina, shops are destroyed.”
Trump “offered support to the French government during this tragic time” in a phone call with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, the White House said.
As Irma barreled toward Florida, meteorologists were closely monitoring two other hurricanes.
Jose, a nearly Category Five storm, was following Irma’s path in the Atlantic, while Katia made landfall in eastern Mexico late Friday just as the country was grappling with its worst earthquake in a century.
Hurricane Jose was wreaking havoc with emergency operations in the Caribbean, as the deteriorating weather prevented boats from leaving with relief supplies and grounded aircraft.
Close to a million people have left their homes in Cuba to stay with relatives or in official shelters.
The Caribbean’s biggest island, Cuba had already evacuated 10,000 foreign tourists from beach resorts and raised its disaster alert level to maximum ahead of Irma’s arrival.
The neighbouring Bahamas was able to escape mostly unscathed from the fierce hurricane’s fierce horrors, with no reports of casualties or major damage.
In Florida, where forecasters warned of storm surges of up to 12 feet (nearly four meters), at least a million people are facing mandatory evacuation orders, with some estimates of evacuees far higher — triggering a mass exodus complicated by traffic gridlock and fuel shortages.
Normally bustling Miami Beach was deserted and storefronts were boarded up with plywood, some bearing graffiti reading “Say no to Irma” or “You don’t scare us Irma”.
“Nobody can be prepared for a storm surge. They can destroy everything,” David Wallack, a 67-year-old salsa club owner attempting to secure his property on the city’s Ocean Drive, said.
“We just can pray for the best. You put what you can in a suitcase and hope.”
Police cars crawled the coastal roads of Florida’s West Palm Beach, blaring out “Attention, attention, this is a mandatory evacuation zone, please evacuate”.
Irma is expected to strike the Florida Keys late Saturday and Sunday before moving inland, according to the NHC.
The US military was mobilizing thousands of troops and deploying several large ships to aid with evacuations and humanitarian relief, as the Air Force removed scores of planes from the southern United States.
In the Caribbean, violent winds ripped roofs and facades off buildings, hurling lumps of concrete, cars and even shipping containers aside.
At least two people were killed in Puerto Rico, and more than half of its three million residents were without power after rivers broke their banks in the center and north of the island.
Another four people were killed on the US Virgin Islands, with a number of badly injured people airlifted to Puerto Rico.
One person died in tiny Barbuda, where 30 percent of properties were demolished and the entire island has been evacuated.
France said at least 10 had been killed across its Caribbean territories with seven more missing. There were 112 people injured, two seriously.
On the Dutch side of Saint Martin island, two people died.
In northwest Haiti, a motorcyclist was missing after trying to cross a flooded river and a number of roads were washed out.
European nations quickly mobilized to help their citizens in the Caribbean, with France and the Netherlands ordering hundreds of police to Saint Martin to tackle an outbreak of looting amid major shortages of food, water and petrol.
The French government said 400 police officers would be deployed following “pillaging” in Saint Martin, where most of the 80,000 inhabitants have lost their homes.