Outer bands of the unusually powerful Hurricane Irma battered parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday morning, threatening serious flooding a day after leaving severe destruction and at least 10 dead across a string of Caribbean islands to the east.
Irma — currently a Category 5 storm with 175 mph sustained winds — knocked out electricity a day earlier to more than 1 million customers in Puerto Rico as it churned off the US territory, and devastated smaller islands, including Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands.
Irma could next hit the Atlantic archipelagos of the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas — and by the weekend may reach a nervous Florida, where people have flocked to stores to prepare and some communities have ordered evacuations.
A hurricane watch has been issued for parts of the Florida Keys and South Florida, including the Naples, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach areas.
“Regardless of which (Florida) coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday at a news conference in Hialeah.
Mandatory evacuations have been issued for the Keys and low-lying parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but Scott said others in Florida need to watch Irma’s path and be ready to move.
“This is not a storm you can sit and wait through. … We can’t save you after the storm starts,” he said.
Meanwhile, the northeastern Caribbean islands just hit by Irma are anxiously watching Hurricane Jose to the east. On Thursday, Antigua and Barbuda issued a hurricane watch for Jose, which could pass close to those islands Saturday.
Irma left at least 10 people dead Wednesday, including six on St. Martin, two on St. Bart’s, one on Anguilla, and one on Barbuda. The latter is barely habitable, with nearly all its buildings damaged, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda said.
Almost 16 million people across 10 countries, states and territories are in the path of the storm, according to the US Census Bureau.
Antigua and Barbuda
The tiny island of Barbuda has been the worst hit so far by Hurricane Irma, with Prime Minister Gaston Browne describing it as having suffered “total devastation.”
Barbuda with a population of approximately 1,800 people is part of the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Most of the two-island nation’s population of 80,000 people reside on the larger island of Antigua, which was spared the worst brunt of the storm as it headed northwest toward the US. There is also no way to land airplanes on the islands, Browne said from Antigua.
Assessing the damage from Irma, Charles Fernandez, minister of foreign affairs and international trade for Antigua and Barbuda, said that destruction on Barbuda was “upwards of 90%.”
St. Martin/St. Maarten
Around 72,000 people live across the whole island, which has suffered property damage and power outages due to Irma.
As the storm approached earlier this week, residents of St. Maarten were warned to prepare supply kits and learn the locations of hurricane shelters.
“Those of you who think your homes may not be safe enough should immediately seek shelter with family, friends, or neighbors until the storm is over,” Prime Minister William Marlin said Tuesday.
One of several British overseas territories in the Caribbean, the 90-square kilometer island of Anguilla sits just north of St. Martin, with a population of around 17,000.
The island has few natural resources, and is largely dependent on tourism, fishing and offshore banking, though it is not as developed as more established Caribbean tax havens.
Anguilla’s government issued a hurricane warning earlier this week and urged all first responders to be ready to offer aid.
St. Kitts and Nevis
The twin island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis is the smallest country in the Americas and Western Hemisphere, with a total land area of 261 square kilometers, and a population of around 52,000.
A largely tourism driven economy, the islands achieved independence from the UK in 1983, though repeated attempts by Nevis to go it alone have so far not been successful.
According to a government statement, St. Kitts and Nevis suffered damage to property and water and power outages due to the storm.
The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico
More than 135,000 people live across the islands, with the majority in the US territories. The economy of the islands is largely based on tourism, with more than 3 million visiting the US Virgin Islands every year alone, mainly via cruise ships.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated US territory, meaning its 3.35 million residents have US citizenship but cannot vote in federal elections. Vieques and Culebra are island off the the east coast of Puerto Rico.
The US territory, which has been dealing with a major economic crisis for several years, has been bracing for the impact of Hurricane Irma, as people have emptied shelves of food and water and Governor Ricardo Rosselló has declared a state of emergency.
Turks and Caicos
Turks and Caicos is a British overseas territory sitting north of Haiti and east of Cuba, and is home to around 52,000 people.
Like Anguilla, its economy is largely based on tourism, fishing and offshore financial services, with the majority of visitors coming from the US by cruise ship.
A hurricane warning is in effect for Turks and Caicos, and national emergency operations in place, according to a statement.
The country was battered by Hurricane Matthew last year, which killed more than 270 people across the Caribbean.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis warned residents to “take Irma seriously” earlier this week, and a hurricane warning has been issued for the islands.
The third most-populous US state, Florida is where Hurricane Irma is expected to make final landfall, with a large chunk of the state’s population of 20 million in the path of the storm.
Residents have been told to prepare for mass evacuations, with many areas having already ordered locals to leave. But experts have warned such a large exodus could lead to miles-long gridlock, as happened with attempted mass evacuations during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Rita in 2005.