Washington, Sep 9 : Hurricane Irma smashed into Cuba and the Bahamas as it drove towards Florida on Saturday after hitting the eastern Caribbean with its devastatingly high winds, killing at least 24 people and leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake. At least five million people were told to evacuate from Florida.
It made landfall on Cuba late on Friday night, regaining its maximum intensity as a Category 5 storm, striking the Camaguey Archipelago with 160 mph winds, the US media reported.
A hurricane warning was in effect in Cuban provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Villa Clara and Matanzas, while floods have been reported in the northeast.
Hurricane Irma is due to hit Florida Keys on Sunday morning, crossing over the entire state over a 30 hour period.
As many as 5.6 million people were told to evacuate from Florida — more than a quarter of the state’s population. At least 540,000 people in parts of Georgia were also told to flee as the storm headed towards the American mainland.
“This is a storm that will kill you if you don’t get out of the way,” said National Hurricane Centre meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
Feltgen said the storm has a really wide eye, with hurricane-force winds that cover the entire Florida peninsula and potentially deadly storm surges on both coasts.
Tom Bossert, US Homeland Security Adviser, said: “Please listen to your local authorities. You need to evacuate from south to north – that is a staggered and carefully thought-out process.”
In West Palm Beach police were going door to door, urging people to obey the mandatory evacuation order.
Rick Scott, the Governor of Florida, said they were working to ensure that fuel was available for cars to get to shelters. He told people they should not wait, and should leave now.
Irma claimed its first victim in Florida, even before making landfall, when a 57-year-old man fell from a ladder while fitting storm shutters at his home, reports said.
Irma is now tracking a path down the coast of Cuba towards the Bahamas, where it is due to reach early on Saturday, before hitting southern Florida early on Sunday.
Florida’s major theme parks, including Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld, will remain closed throughout the weekend.
The US military was on Friday night mobilising 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 region.
The Red Cross said an estimated 1.2 million people have already been affected by Irma and that figure could rise sharply to 26 million.
US 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.