Hurricane Irma menaced Cuba and the Bahamas on Friday as it drove toward Florida after lashing the Caribbean with devastatingly high winds, killing 19 people and leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake.
As Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, bore down on Florida, Governor Rick Scott issued a stark warning to residents to get out if they were in evacuation zones.
“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,” Scott told reporters, adding the storm’s effects would be felt from coast to coast.
Irma was about 270 miles (435 km) east of Caibarien on Cuba’s central-north coast, and 405 miles (655 km) southeast of Miami, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory at 11 a.m EDT (1500 GMT) on Friday. Hurricane conditions were spreading westward over parts of Cuba and the central Bahamas.
Irma pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands after saturating the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The “extremely dangerous” storm was downgraded from a Category 5, the top of the scale of hurricane intensity, to a Category 4 early Friday but it was still carrying winds as strong as 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour), 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. The storm was predicted to slam southern Florida on Sunday.
Cuba, where the Communist government has traditionally made rigorous preparations when the island is threatened by storms, was at a near standstill as Irma began to drive up the northern coast from east to west offshore.
Schools and most businesses were closed, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated, and train, bus and domestic air services around the island were canceled. Airports were closing to international flights as conditions warranted.
Irma was forecast to move closer to land as it approached the center of Cuba later in the day and on Saturday, when it could seriously damage resorts on vulnerable keys. Tourists, and even the dolphins that entertain them, were evacuated. The storm was then predicted to veer north, sparing western Cuba and Havana.
In the Cuban fishing town of Caibarien, residents secured their roofs and moved belongings from low-lying coastal areas to houses higher up inland as the skies clouded over. Most said they were worried but well prepared.
Esteban Reyes, 65, was pushing his bicycle taxi laden with a mattress, iron and DVD player. “We are used to storms but I‘m still a bit scared. But the government has taught us to be prepared and help one another,” he said.
In several television interviews early Friday, Florida’s governor pleaded with residents to leave areas designated for evacuation, although he acknowledged frustration with buying gas and handling bumper-to-bumper traffic on the roads.
“We’re doing everything we can to get the fuel out,” to gas stations, including police escorts, Scott told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.
Nearly one-third of all gas stations in Florida’s metropolitan areas were out of gasoline, according to Gasbuddy.com, a retail fuel price tracking service.
“Don’t be complacent. We’re not sure exactly where this is going to go,” he told CBS, adding that he expected to see 5-10 feet of storm surge.
Downtown Miami, under an evacuation order, appeared to have emptied out on Friday morning, with little traffic on the streets and public parking lots empty.