PUERTO RICO — Hurricane Irma hammered a string of northeast Caribbean islands, thrashing them with rain and winds of up to 180 mph, and leaving at least nine people dead.
The hurricane battered several islands, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands, causing widespread devastation. Barbuda is barely inhabitable with nearly all its buildings damaged, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda said.
Puerto Rico was spared a direct hit, but it still got lashed by strong winds and torrential rains, leading to hundreds of thousands without power, officials said.
The eye of one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic is making its way toward a possibly devastating hit on Florida over the weekend. On Thursday morning, Irma was moving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic and was about 95 miles north of Punta Cana.
The center of the storm will pass north of the coast of Hispaniola later Thursday, and near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas by evening, the National Hurricane Center said.
Here are the latest developments:
— Hurricane Irma has killed at least nine people, officials said. Six died on the French side of the island of St. Martin and two others on St. Barthélemy, according to French officials. An infant in Barbuda also died in the storm, officials said.
— Barbuda, one of two major islands in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, took a major hit, with about 95% of its buildings damaged, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
— Browne described the damage as “unprecedented” and “absolutely devastating,” estimating it will cost $100 million to rebuild.
— 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 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.
— A hurricane warning is in effect for some areas in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
— Irma has maintained intensity above 180 mph longer than any storm in Atlantic basin history.
Will it hit Florida?
It’s too early to tell whether it will make landfall on the US mainland. Computer models show it could churn near Florida’s east coast by late 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.
Gov. Rick Scott urged Floridians to heed any evacuation order.
“(A) storm surge could cover your house. We can rebuild homes — we cannot rebuild your family,” he said.
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 six coastal counties. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also declared a state of emergency.
Bahamas orders evacuations
A hurricane warning is in effect for the central and southeastern Bahamas, and officials there are not taking chances.
Emergency evacuations have been ordered 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.
“Some of the (Bahamian) islands aren’t more than 9 feet (above sea level). Storm surges there may be 20 feet,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Trail of destruction
Kelsey Nowakowski posted images to Instagram of the aftermath in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.
“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 are 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 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.
In San Juan, CNN’s Leyla Santiago said 900,000 customers are without power after strong winds hit the island. There were no immediate reports of injuries in the US territory of about 3.4 million people.