IN PHOTOS: The destructive path of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, as Florida gets ready
Irma, the most potent Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever, cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean leaving at least 10 dead and thousands homeless on a track Thursday that could lead to a catastrophic strike on Florida.
Irma weakened only slightly Thursday morning and remained a powerful Category 5 storm with winds of 175 mph (280 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
The storm was increasingly likely to make landfall near Miami or pass pass close offshore by early Sunday morning forecasters said, prompting the governor to declare an emergency and officials to impose mandatory evacuation orders for parts of the Miami metro area and the Florida Keys.
"The models have been locked onto Miami for the last 36 hours," said meteorologist Judith Curry, founder of Climate Forecast Applications Network which provides weather and climate tools to clients including Florida Power & Light (FPL), the main electricity company in South Florida which operates a nuclear power plant, Turkey point, in Irma's path.
"At this stage I don't think it's going to change much. It's going to hit somewhere in the vicinity of Miami," she added. In a rare sight on Thursday, the entire Florida peninsula was swallowed up in the hurricane center's map showing the "cone" of uncertainty for where the impact of Irma might be felt.
One experimental model by IBM's Deep Thunder weather computing system has landfall near Key Largo 40 miles south of Miami as a Category 5 storm, an "absolute worst case scenario," according to Dan Leonard senior meteorologist at the Weather Company.
Florida has not suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane in 12 years, a record for the state which has a long history of big storms. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, killed 44 people in Florida and caused $26.5 billion in damages after it made landfall in Homestead, south of Miami, destroying 125,000 homes. Andrew's peak winds were estimated at 164 mph, though no official record was possible due to destruction of the measuring instruments.
"This could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago," said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, alluding to the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
Like Andrew, Irma is a fast-moving large storm though it has a larger diameter of hurricane-force winds extending 105 miles wide, and a diameter of tropical storm-force winds up to 310 miles.
Also potentially in its path is the Turkey Point nuclear power plant operated by FPL. The company said it planned to shut down the reactors if the hurricane came dangerously close. Cruise lines also changed routes and cancelled some sailings out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Florida's entire east coast from Key West to Miami to Palm Beach is in Irma's projected path though forecast models were uncertain if it would move inland or remain offshore as it moves up the peninsula. One possible track also had it making landfall on the southest coast near Naples before slicing across the state in a northeasterly direction.
"If Irma makes a trek up the East Coast from Miami to southern South Carolina as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, as the models currently suggest, the portions of the coast that the eyewall touches will potentially see a massive and catastrophic storm surge, breaking all-time storm surge records and causing many billions of dollars in damage," according to Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private forecaster Weather Underground.
By Thursday late morning, the center of the storm was about 65 miles (105 kilometers) east-northeast of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and was moving west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).
The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted Irma would remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as passes just to the north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday, nears the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas by Thursday night and skirts Cuba on Friday night into Saturday.
It will then likely head north toward Florida, where people were rushing to board up homes, fill cars with gasoline and find a route to safety.
Senator Bill Nelson sent a letter Wednesday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) saying that South Florida faced a growing gasoline shortage. One on four gas stations are out of gas between Miami and West Palm Beach, he said.
An estimated 25,000 people or more left the Florida Keys after all visitors were ordered to clear out, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic on the single highway that links the chain of low-lying islands to the mainland. Miami Dade County issued a mandatory evacuation order for tens of thousands more residents of low-lying coastal areas such as Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, South Miami and Key Biscayne.
Irma is forecast to produce about 8 to 12 inches of rain in South Florida, wuith as much as 20 inches in some places.
"It's a tragedy"... "horrendous situation"
More than half the island of Puerto Rico was without power, leaving 900,000 in the dark and nearly 50,000 without water. Puerto Rico's public power company warned before the storm hit that some areas could be left without power from four to six months because its staff has been reduced and its infrastructure weakened by the island's decade-long economic slump.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told France Info radio that eight had died and 23 injured in the country's Caribbean island territories, and he said the toll on Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy could be higher because rescue teams have yet to finish their inspection of the islands.
"It's a tragedy, we'll need to rebuild both islands," he said. "Most of the schools have been destroyed."
In the United Kingdom, the government said Irma inflicted "severe and in places critical" damage to the British overseas territory of Anguilla. Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan said the Caribbean island took the full force of the hurricane. He told lawmakers on Thursday that the British Virgin islands have also suffered "severe damage."
Irma blacked out much of Puerto Rico, raking the U.S. territory with heavy wind and rain while staying just out to sea, and it headed early Thursday toward Cuba.
Nearly every building on Barbuda was damaged when the hurricane's core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday and about 60 percent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press.
"It is just really a horrendous situation," Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighboring island.
Significant damage was also reported on St. Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control. Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily flooded.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Thursday; "There is no power, no gasoline, no running water. Houses are under water, cars are floating through the streets, inhabitants are sitting in the dark, in ruined houses and are cut off from the outside world," he said.
This article contains material from AP.