UPDATED (10:00 am) – The storm has left behind significant damage to the region, but a precise assessment will not be able to be carried out until Sunday, according to the Camaguey official Isabel Gonzalez Cardenas. Officials have not reported any casualties due to the early evacuations ordered for both local coastal residents and tourists.
Hurricane Irma briefly strengthened to a Category 5, slamming Cuba’s coast late Friday night. It now continues its path as a Category 4 with sustained winds of 250 km/h (155 miles per hour), lashing evacuated coastal regions in Cuba and causing damages.
Irma is the first Category 5 storm to make landfall in Cuba in decades.
According to the President of the Province of Camaguey, Isabel Gonzalez Cardenas speaking on TV Cubana, the storm has left behind significant damge to the region, but a precise assessment will not be able to be carried out until morning.
Officials have not reported any casualties due to the early evacuations ordered for both local coastal residents and tourists.
The eye of the storm is expected to reach Havana on Saturday afternoon, where storm surges are expected to push waters between 200 and 500 meters inland, with waves up to five meters high through Sunday in the western regions of the country.
Earlier, the storm pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands after saturating the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
It was downgraded from a Category 5 to a Category 4 early on Friday after passing over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but regained strength before hitting Cuba. After several hours at a Category 5, its winds lowered to 250 km.h, bringing it back down to a four.
Irma is expected to continue strafing Cuba’s coast before heading up toward Florida, slamming the Florida keys as a borderline Category 5 or Category 4 storm. Florida has ordered the mandatory evacuation of nearly 6 million people.
The death toll from Irma has risen to 21 as emergency services gained access to remote areas.
The storm passed just to the north of the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, damaging roofs and causing flooding and power outages as it approached the Haitian side.
One man was reported missing after trying to cross a river in Haiti’s Central Plateau region, and the government said some 10,000 people were in emergency shelters.
Cuba’s has made thorough preparations ahead of the storm and the island nation came to a near standstill as Irma started to drive up the northern coast from east to west.
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 ready for the impact.
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 the Bahamas, the government evacuated most of the southern islands before the storm hit, with some 1,200 people airlifted to the capital, Nassau.
While a major evacuation is underway in southern Florida, crowding highways and leaving gas stations without fuel.
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 is due to hit the United States two weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, killing about 60 people and causing property damage estimated at up to US$180 billion in Texas and Louisiana. Officials were preparing a massive response, the head of FEMA said.
A mandatory evacuation on Georgia’s Atlantic coast was due to begin on Saturday, said Governor Nathan Deal, who expanded a state of emergency to include 94 of 159 counties as the storm’s predicted track shifted west. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe on Friday added his state to those under a state of emergency.
The governors of North and South Carolina warned residents to remain on guard even as the storm took a more westward track, saying their states still could experience severe weather, including heavy rain and flash flooding, early next week.
As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged small islands in the northeastern Caribbean, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.
Even as they came to grips with the massive destruction, residents of the islands hit hardest by Irma faced the threat of another major storm, Hurricane Jose.
It’s expected to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday, as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 240 km/h (150 miles per) hour according to the National Hurricane Center.
Irma’s landfall in Cuba coincided with the landfall of Hurricane Katia in Veracruz, Mexico as a Category 1 storm. Katia has already left 3 dead, and further damage is possible due to heavy rains and possible mudslides in the normally dry region over the next several days. The storm strikes Mexico as the country assesses damage and recovers from the most powerful earthquake in decades, which left at least 61 dead yesterday.