Florida (Reuters): Hurricane Irma , one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, drove toward Florida on Friday as it lashed the Caribbean with devastating winds and torrential rain, leaving behind 14 deaths and a swathe of catastrophic destruction .
The “extremely dangerous” hurricane was downgraded from a category 5 to a category 4 early on Friday, but it still packed winds as strong as 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.
It was heading for the Bahamas, where it was expected to bring 20-foot (six-meter) storm surges before moving to Cuba and then slamming into southern Florida on Sunday.
In Miami, hundreds lined up for bottled water and cars looped around city blocks to get gas on Thursday. Gasoline shortages in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area worsened on Thursday, with sales up to five times the norm.
In Palm Beach, the waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate owned by US President Donald Trump was ordered evacuated, media said. Trump also owns property on the French side of Saint Martin, an island devastated by the storm.
A mandatory evacuation on Georgia’s Atlantic coast was due to begin on Saturday, Governor Nathan Deal said.
Irma has ravaged a series of small islands in the northeast Caribbean, including Barbuda, Saint Martin and the British and US Virgin Islands, ripping down trees and flattening homes and hospitals.
A Reuters witness described the roof and walls of a well-built house shaking hard as the storm rocked the island of Providenciales and caused a drop in pressure that could be felt in people’s chests.
Throughout the islands in its wake, shocked locals tried to comprehend the extent of the devastation - and simultaneously got ready for another major hurricane, Jose, now a Category 3 and due in the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday.
Four people died in the US Virgin islands, a government spokesman said, and a major hospital was badly damaged by the wind. A US amphibious assault ship arrived in the US Virgin Islands on Thursday and sent helicopters for medical evacuations from the destroyed hospital.
A man was reported missing after trying to cross a river in Cerca La Source in Haiti’s Central Plateau region.
Barbuda, where one person died, was reduced “to rubble”, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said. In the British overseas territory of Anguilla, another person was killed and the hospital, airport and power and phone services were damaged, emergency service officials said.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said four bodies were recovered on the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin, which was hit hard.
Three people were killed in Puerto Rico and around two-thirds of the population lost electricity, Governor Ricardo Rossello said after the storm rolled by the US territory’s northern coast. A surfer was also reported killed in Barbados.
The storm passed just to the north of the island of Hispaniola, shared by Dominican Republic and Haiti, causing some damage to roofs, flooding and power outages as it approached the impoverished Haitian side, which is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and rain, although it did not make landfall.
Cuba started evacuating some of the 51,000 tourists visiting the island, particularly 36,000 people at resorts on the northern coast. In Caibarien, a coastal town in the hurricane’s predicted path , residents were heading farther inland.
Irma was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years, according to the NHC.
The storm activity comes after Hurricane Harvey claimed about 60 lives and caused property damage estimated at as much as $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana.