Irma could regain enough strength to hit the Florida Keys as a Category 5 with sustained winds of 160 miles per hour.
Hurricane Irma has been lashing Cuba and the Bahamas as it approaches Florida.
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 but it still carried winds as strong as 249 kilometers per hour and is forecast to gather intensity once more.
Irma could regain enough strength to hit the Florida Keys as a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 254 kilometres per hour as it makes landfall on Saturday.
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.
Cuban television broadcast footage of the sea flooding coastal towns in the eastern provinces of Guantanamo and Holguin, with waves reaching 6 meters. With the storm still well offshore, flooding from the storm surge and inland from rain and swollen streams and rivers were the main concerns.
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.
Irma was forecast to move closer to land as it passed the center of Cuba later and on Saturday, when it could seriously damage resorts.
Tourist areas have been evacuated.
The storm is then predicted to veer north, sparing western Cuba and Havana.
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 150 miles per hour according to the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane Katia is also due to bear down on Mexico. The storm has brought heavy rains and left at least three people dead.
It’s expected to be almost a Category 3 storm when it makes landfall in the eastern state of Veracurz early on Saturday.
The nation is already grappling with the aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded which struck off the country’s southern coast on Thursday night, toppling hundreds of buildings and killing dozens of people.
See video here.
Reuters-The Weather Channel
teleSUR, September 8, 2017