Hurricane Irma walloped Cuba’s northern coast on Saturday, as Florida ordered 5.6 million people to evacuate after the storm killed 21 people in the eastern Caribbean and left a series of tiny islands devastated.
Irma regained strength as a Category 5 storm late Friday as it made landfall on the Camaguey Archipelago of Cuba with 160 mph (260 kph) winds, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
The scenes along Cuba’s north central coast were gradually coming to resemble the horrors of those of other Caribbean islands over the last week.
As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged the islands, including Barbuda, St. Martin, St Barts and the British and US Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.
But even as they came to grips with the massive destruction, residents of the islands faced the threat of another major storm, Hurricane Jose. Jose, expected to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday, was an extremely dangerous storm nearing Category 5 status, with winds of up to 150 mph (240 kph), the NHC said.
According to French state-owned reinsurer CCR, Irma has wreaked an estimated 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) worth of damage in St. Martin and St. Barts alone.
Irma, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, was expected to hit the Florida Keys late Saturday, before moving inland in the fourth-largest US state by population.
Florida has ordered 5.6 million people to evacuate, according to its Division of Emergency Management.
Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew — which killed 65 people in 1992 — Florida’s governor Rick Scott had said all of the state’s 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate.
“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.
Irma was set to hit the United States two weeks after Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, struck Texas, killing
about 60 people and causing property damage estimated at up to $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana.