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.”
North of the Keys, in Miami Beach, Orlando Reyes, an 82-year-old Cuban-American, had to suddenly 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.”
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.”
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.
The neighboring Bahamas was able to escape mostly unscathed from the fierce hurricane’s fierce horrors, with no reports of casualties or major damage.
“Nobody can be prepared for a storm surge. They can destroy everything,” said David Wallack, a 67-year-old salsa club owner attempting to secure his property on the city’s Ocean Drive.
“We just can pray for the best. You put what you can in a suitcase and hope.”
Irma is expected to strike the Florida Keys late Saturday and Sunday before moving inland, according to the NHC.