HAVANA (Reuters) – Hurricane Irma lashed Cuba and the Bahamas as it drove toward Florida on Friday after hitting the eastern Caribbean with its devastatingly high winds, killing 21 people and leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake.
Irma, one of the most powerful 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. A historic evacuation was underway in southern Florida, crowding highways and leaving gas stations without fuel.
The storm could regain strength and hit the Florida Keys as a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (258 km per hour), the most powerful designation by the National Hurricane Center.
The United States has experienced only three Category 5 storms since 1851, and Irma is far larger than the last one to hit the United States 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, adding that the storm’s effects would be felt from coast to coast in the state.
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.
Irma, currently a Category 4 storm, was about 345 miles (555 km) southeast of Miami, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in its latest advisory. Hurricane conditions were spreading westward over parts of Cuba and the central Bahamas as the storm skirted near Cuba’s northern coast.
The storm earlier pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands after saturating the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The storm was downgraded from a rare Category 5, the top of the scale of hurricane intensity, to a Category 4 early Friday but it still carried winds as strong as 155 mph (250 kph), the NHC said.
Irma was forecast to bring dangerous storm surges of up to 20 feet (6 meters) to the southeastern and central Bahamas, and up to 10 feet (3 meters) on parts of Cuba’s northern coast.
Cuban television broadcast footage of the sea flooding coastal towns in the eastern provinces of Guantanamo and Holguin, with waves…