Caribbean assesses damage from Hurricane Irma as Florida prepares for devastation

Hurricane Irma scraped Cuba's northern coast Friday on a course toward Florida, leaving in its deadly wake a ravaged string of Caribbean resort islands strewn with splintered lumber, corrugated metal and broken concrete.

Irma has destroyed homes, hotels and hospitals and left at least 22 dead

Palm trees sway in the wind prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irma in Caibarien, Cuba on Friday. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Hurricane Irma scraped Cuba's northern coast Friday on a course toward Florida, leaving in its deadly wake a ravaged string of Caribbean resort islands strewn with splintered lumber, corrugated metal and broken concrete.

The death toll in the Caribbean stood at 22 and was expected to rise as rescuers reached some of the hardest-hit areas.

And a new danger lay on the horizon to the east: Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm with 240 km/h winds that could punish some of the devastated areas all over again.

"I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to know that further damage is imminent," said Insp. Frankie Thomas of the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda.

Irma weakened from a Category 5 to a still-fearsome Category 4 on Friday morning. The hurricane was moving near the north coast of Cuba and central Bahamas Friday night and Saturday. 

By Friday evening, Irma was 510 kilometres southeast of Miami with maximum sustained winds of 250 km/h, the hurricane centre said. It's projected to make landfall in Florida Sunday morning.

Forecasters adjusted the storm's potential track more toward the west coast of Florida, away from the Miami metropolitan area of six million people, meaning "a less costly, a less deadly storm," University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said. 

Nevertheless, forecasters warned that its hurricane-force winds were so wide they could reach from coast to coast, testing the U.S.'s third-largest state, which has undergone rapid development and more stringent hurricane-proof building codes in the last decade or so.

Two boys walk in a flooded area in Fort Liberte, Haiti, on Friday in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

"This is a storm that will kill you if you don't get out of the way," National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said. "Everybody's going to feel this one." 

The hurricane smashed homes, schools, stores, roads and boats on Wednesday and Thursday as it rolled over some of the world's most famous beach paradises, including St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

It knocked out power, water and telephone service, trapped thousands of tourists and stripped the trees of leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted-looking landscape. Authorities reported looting and gunfire in St. Martin, and a 6 p.m. curfew was imposed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In heavily damaged Barbuda, Stevet Jeremiah's two-year-old son was swept to his death after the hurricane ripped the roof off her house and filled it with water.

"There was so much water beating past us, we had to crawl to get to safety. Crawl," she said. "I have never seen anything like this in my life, in all the years I experienced hurricanes. And I don't ever, ever, ever want to see something like this again."

She said: "I have nothing. Not even an ID to say my name. Nothing. House gone. The only thing you see is the foundation."

Florida prepares

The crisis was a glimpse of what could lie ahead early Sunday for Florida, which braced for what many fear could be the long-dreaded Big One.

Irma was at one point the most powerful recorded storm in the open Atlantic. It could be one of the most devastating storms ever to hit Florida, a state that has undergone rapid development since the last major storm struck a dozen years ago.

Motorists form a long line to get sandbags at Kissimmee, Fla., on Thursday to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Irma. (Gregg Newton/Reuters)

Florida residents and tourists faced gas shortages and gridlock on inland highways as roughly 5.6 million people evacuated from various communities. 

"Get where you need to go, and do not wait," Florida Gov. Rick Scott told a news conference Friday evening.

Scott's biggest concern is storm surges between 1.8 and 3.6 metres, especially in the Keys and southwest.

Another concern is the overall size of Irma, which could hit the entire state.

"This is a storm that will kill you if you don't get out of the way," said National Hurricane Center meteorologist and spokesperson Dennis Feltgen.

Feltgen said the storm's wide eye could bring hurricane-force winds to the entire Florida peninsula and
potentially deadly storm surges on both coasts. 

"Everybody's going to feel this one," Feltgen said.

For only the fifth time, Walt Disney World in Orlando will close because of a hurricane. The park will be closed Saturday through to Monday. Other area amusement parks, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld in Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa also plan to shut down Saturday evening. 

U.S. President Donald Trump urged people to "be careful, be safe" during Hurricane Irma. In a tweet, Trump remarked that Irma "is raging but we have great teams of talented and brave people already in place and ready to help."

Trump's exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach — the unofficial Southern White House — sits in the path of the storm.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered evacuations for 94 counties, including the city of Savannah, and authorized about 5,000 National Guard members to help with response and recovery. 

Islands devastated

Early Friday, Irma rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti and battered the Turks and Caicos with waves as high as six metres. 

Friday afternoon, the Turks and Caicos Minister of Infrastructure Gold Ray Ewing said damage on the most populated island of Providenciales will total at least half a billion dollars.

Damage from Hurricane Irma in Orient Bay on the island of St. Martin. (Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images)

He said no one has yet been able to assess damage on Grand Turk and South Caicos islands.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ewing said that a community known as Blue Hill on the northwestern side of Providenciales is "gone" and that homes have been destroyed across the island, but so far there have been no deaths reported.

Flooding is widespread and power is out throughout the island chain. There are many downed trees and utility poles, making some roads impassable.

The hurricane also spun along the northern coast of Cuba, where tens of thousands of people were being moved to safety, including thousands of tourists along a shoreline dotted with all-inclusive resorts.

U.S., Dutch, French and British authorities used warships and military planes to rush food, water and troops to the stricken zone.

Homes were heavily damaged after Hurricane Irma hit Barbuda. (Anika E. Kentish/Associated Press)

On the island of St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, power lines and towers were toppled, leaves were stripped off plants and trees, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged, and the harbour was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses. 

Some of the Irma-ravaged islands could see tropical-storm force winds and heavy rain from Jose, said Jeff Masters of the private forecasting service Weather Underground.

"It's insult added to injury definitely, but nothing compared to what they already went through," Masters said. "It's going to hamper relief efforts, so that's a big deal."

The dead included 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands, one on Barbuda and one on Anguilla.

In Barbados, a 16-year-old junior professional surfer drowned on Tuesday while surfing large swells generated by an approaching Irma.

The hospital on St. Thomas was destroyed and dozens of patients were being evacuated to St. Croix and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Coast Guard. 


  • An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that a surfer died Tuesday in Barbuda. In fact, the surfer died in Barbados.
    Sep 08, 2017 4:18 PM ET

With files from CBC News