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Hurricane Irma: South Florida under hurricane watch as deadly storm nears

The Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas prepared Thursday for possible direct hits from deadly and massive Hurricane Irma as Florida’s governor warned everyone in his state to be ready to take shelter.

Irma — a Category 5 storm churning in the Atlantic with 175 mph sustained winds — killed at least six people a day earlier as it devastated small northeastern Caribbean islands such as Barbuda and left hundreds of thousands of customers in Puerto Rico without power.

“Regardless of which (Florida) coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday at a news conference, with forecasters warning the storm could reach South Florida by Sunday.

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,” he said. He added later: “You don’t have to drive hundreds of miles or leave the state to be safe. Go to shelters.”

Irma still was battering the mountainous, northern parts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic early Thursday afternoon. It could leave up to 15 inches of rain there — amounts that could trigger dangerous flooding and mudslides, the National Hurricane Center said.

Hurricane Irma: Live updates

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 six people dead Wednesday, including four on St. Martin, one on Anguilla, and one on Barbuda, officials said. The latter is barely habitable, with nearly all its buildings damaged, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda said.

Here are the latest developments:

— Around 11 a.m. ET, Irma’s center was about 75 miles east-northeast of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, moving west-northwest with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph. Irma previously had winds over 180 mph, keeping those speeds longer than any storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.

— Hurricane warnings are in effect for parts of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas.

— 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. A watch also is in effect in Cuba from Matanzas province to Guantanamo province.

— Scott, Florida’s governor, said Thursday he has directed state law enforcement to escort gas trucks to gas stations in an attempt to address reported fuel shortages. “We know fuel is very important” as people prepare to evacuate inland, he said. “While we’re making progress, you will see lines and outages, unfortunately.”

— Irma is one of three active hurricanes in the Atlantic basin — the last time this happened was in 2010. Jose, in the open Atlantic far to the southeast of Irma, has become a hurricane, as has Katia in the Gulf of Mexico.

Will it hit Florida?

Some computer models show Irma could churn near Florida’s southern and east coasts by early Sunday. Officials are ordering some evacuations and shutting down schools.

The tropical storm-force wind field from Irma stretches over 300 miles from end to end. If it were centered over New York City, the tropical storm-force winds would stretch from Baltimore to Boston.

Many spent Wednesday stocking up on food or making plans to head inland. Hurricane watches may be issued for parts of South Florida and the Keys on Thursday.

In Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and other cities north of Miami, a mandatory evacuation will go into effect at noon Thursday for some areas, Mayor Barbara Sharief said.

Miami-Dade County ordered people out in some areas, including mobile homes and barrier islands.

Florida is not the only state preparing for possible impact.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has declared a state of emergency for all 100 counties, while his Georgia counterpart, Nathan Deal, issued a state of emergency for 30 counties. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also declared a state of emergency.

Turks and Caicos, Bahamas in Irma’s path

Irma could be near the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands on Thursday night and parts of the Bahamas on Friday.

Storm surges could reach up to 20 feet, the National Hurricane Center says — twice as high as some of the islands’ elevations.

“Some of these Turks and Caicos (Islands) will be completely overwashed,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

The Turks and Caicos are a British overseas territory with about 35,000 people. Officials there are “working intensively on disaster preparedness and response … (and) liaising with their counterparts in the Cayman Islands for assistance,” UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Alan Duncan said Thursday.

The Bahamas, a nation of about 390,000, ordered evacuations for six southern islands — Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island.

“This is the largest such evacuation in the history of the country,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said.

Trail of destruction

Irma’s eye passed directly over Barbuda on Wednesday, leaving the small island’s 1,800 residents largely incommunicado after it knocked over the telecommunications system and cell towers.

Irma left Barbuda, one of two major islands in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, with about 95% of its buildings damaged, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.

“It looks like (a) garbage disposal,” Marlon Carr, a photographer who toured the island with the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told CNN on Thursday. “There was rubble and roof galvanized all over the island. It looked like some of the houses … were imploded on.

“The rubble stayed in the same position the house was, but it was flat — completely flat.”

Witnesses told him of “40-foot containers flying, animals flying” during the storm. Some spoke of taking shelter in bathrooms as their homes were torn apart.

Browne described the damage as “unprecedented” and “absolutely devastating,” estimating it will cost $100 million to rebuild.

With so many houses destroyed and Hurricane Jose approaching, officials are transporting people from Barbuda to the nation’s more populous Antigua island, he said.

In St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, Kelsey Nowakowski posted images to Instagram of the aftermath there.

“This doesn’t look like it was ever a tropical paradise. It looks like an eerie fairytale forest,” she said in her post. “During the storm there were a handful of times when we thought we were losing the house’s roof on the floor above, but when we emerged we found our roof intact.”

Michael Coleman took shelter in a cement bunker in St. Thomas.

“The wind was so intense. Trees and roofs flying,” he said.

He posted a video on Twitter showing mangled patio and roofing scattered all around.

In Puerto Rico, about 56,680 customers were without water, with the US territory’s northeast hit the hardest, according to Jesus Poupart of the emergency operations center. Emergency officials are still taking in reports to determine the extent of the damage.

In the beachside area of Piñones near San Juan, Irma tore the roof off Cristian López’s fried-food restaurant. He said he wouldn’t be able to reopen the place for about five days.

“At least we are all alive,” he said.

In the northeast city of Fajardo, authorities conducted at least 10 rescues, an emergency dispatcher there told CNN. Of those, five were from flooded homes, two of people trapped in vehicles, and three who were trapped in an elevator, the dispatcher said.

There were no immediate reports of injuries in the US territory of about 3.4 million people.