Howling Hurricane Irma barreled over parts of the Caribbean on Wednesday — killing at least four people as it turned its catastrophic 185 mph winds toward Puerto Rico and set its sights on Florida.
The second-strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, Irma knocked down homes, flooded low-lying islands and cut off power to hundreds of thousands during its apocalyptic crawl across the region.
Seismometers, meant to study and record earthquakes, have been set off by the storm’s fury.
At least two people were killed and two seriously injured on the islands of St. Barts and St. Martin. An infant was confirmed dead on Barbuda, a tiny island of 1,700 residents that was “totally demolished,” according to Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
Washed out roads, mangled cars and toppled houses lined the island’s usually pristine beaches.
“It is just a total devastation,” Browne said. “Barbuda right now is literally a rubble.”
Four of the “most solid” buildings on St. Martin were flattened, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters Wednesday. A surfer was also reportedly killed on Barbados.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he expects more victims and extensive damage.
It’s too early to give precise figures, but the “the toll will be harsh and cruel,” he said.
St. Barts is a French colony. St. Martin is shared by the French and the Dutch.
“The material damage on both islands is considerable,” he said. There will be “victims to lament.”
As of Wednesday evening, the massive 400-mile-wide storm was lumbering along, with its core passing roughly 55 miles north of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
More than 600,000 people are already without power and nearly 50,000 without water on the island.
Officials warned that some areas may not regain electricity for months because of the fragile state of the power grid. Fourteen hospitals are already relying solely on generators.
Outer bands of wind squalls and torrential downpours pelted Puerto Rico as Irma and its Category 5 winds continued to close in, scattering trees and light posts across roads.
“We have to prepare for the worst,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “If we don’t, it could be devastating.”
On Thursday, Irma is likely to rage near the northern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti before passing the Turks and Caicos islands and the southeastern Bahamas, where storm surges of up to 20 feet are possible, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The storm is expected to take a hard right somewhere along the Cuban coast and barrel into southern Florida.
Officials warned that the storm will possibly make landfall there by this weekend.
“The threat of direct hurricane impacts in Florida over the weekend and early next week has increased,” the National Hurricane Center said.
All hospitals in the Florida Keys will close Friday at 7 a.m. Patients will be airlifted from the area.
Irma, coming less than two weeks after the devastating damage done by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, has already sent residents along the eastern U.S. coast into a frenzy of preparation.
Gas stations around the Miami-Dade area reported running out of fuel Wednesday as drivers waiting patiently in long lines and residents rushed to buy water and other supplies.
Employees at a Chevron station near Interstate 75 told a local TV station they sold 18,000 gallons of gas from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. — what they typically sell in a 24-hour period.
JetBlue, a major airline carrier in Florida, offered $99 direct flights from every city in the state where it operates to help people safely evacuate before Irma comes ashore.
Some Floridians looking to escape the storm complained of price gouging by other airlines.
A few shared screenshots of examples, such as a $1,738 United flight between Miami and Indianapolis and a Delta flight to Phoenix that went from $547 to $3,258, on social media.
Gov. Rick Scott waived tolls on all Florida highways and told people if they were thinking about leaving to “get out now.”
“I can’t stress this enough. Do not ignore evacuation orders,” Scott said. “Remember, we can rebuild your home but we cannot rebuild your life.”
But he also acknowledged the uncertainty of the forecasts, saying, “It’s hard to tell people where to go until we know exactly where it will go.”
In anticipation of the storm, the Miami Dolphins game against Tampa Bay was put off until Nov. 19, officials said.
It has been almost 25 years since Florida took a hit from a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Andrew struck just south of Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph.
“We’ll see what happens,” President Trump said in Washington. “It looks like it could be something that could be not good, believe me, not good.”
Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach — where he spent many weekends after his inauguration — sits in the potential path of the storm.
Some 1,000 National Guard members were to be activated in the Sunshine State. Another 6,000 have to report for duty by Friday, when the first impact of the storm might roll across the state.
Because it’s unclear what path Irma will take after hitting Cuba, Scott said the whole peninsula needs to be ready for an evacuation.
Florida is currently under a state of emergency. So are Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But funds for recovery could be hard to come by, according to a Tuesday report by Bloomberg News. Thanks to the devastation wrought by Harvey across Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to run out of money by Friday.
Only $541 million of the agency’s $1.01 billion disaster relief fund is “immediately available,” a spokeswoman told Bloomberg.
Emergency declarations were also made in the Carolinas and coastal Georgia.
“This thing is a buzz saw,” warned Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach. “I don’t see any way out of it.”
Gov. Cuomo said Wednesday that New York was prepared to help in any way possible.
“As our neighbors and friends brace for Irma, we have offered personnel, equipment and whatever else is needed,” he said in a statement.
Six southern islands in the Bahamas were also evacuated for fear that those stranded couldn’t be saved from the “potentially catastrophic” winds expected to hit the region.
“This is the largest such evacuation in the history of the country,” Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said.
Making matters worse, a festering tropical storm which formed behind Irma has wind gusts up to 75 mph and has been labeled Hurricane Jose, according to the National Hurricane center.
“Interests in the Leeward Islands should monitor the progress of Jose,” the agency said.
With News Wire Services.