MIAMI • After laying waste to several Caribbean islands, Hurricane Irma was barrelling yesterday towards Florida, where some 5.6 million people faced orders to evacuate as the monster storm made landfall in Cuba.
Irma - which has killed 21 people and devastated thousands of homes in the Caribbean - made landfall late last Friday on the Camaguey Archipelago of Cuba as a maximum- strength Category 5 storm.
The hurricane weakened slightly to a Category 4 hours later, swirling some 395km away from Miami and packing still-powerful maximum sustained winds of 249kmh, according to the United States National Hurricane Centre.
Irma was expected to have struck the Florida Keys late yesterday and today before moving inland, and officials have ordered a historic evacuation that has been made more difficult by clogged highways, petrol shortages and the challenge of moving older people.
The US has been hit by only three Category 5 storms since 1851, and Irma is far larger than the last one in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
According to Florida's Division of Emergency Management, some 5.6 million residents have been ordered to evacuate - nearly a quarter of the state's population - in what local media has touted as one of the largest mass evacuations in US history.
Warning that Irma would be worse than Andrew - which killed 65 people in 1992 - Florida's governor said all 20.6 million Floridians should prepare to flee.
CATEGORY 5 STORMS IN U.S.
Nicknamed Labour Day hurricane
Strongest hurricane to hit the US struck in September 1935, with winds of 298 kmh.
Death toll: 423 people killed.
Struck the Gulf Coast in August 1969, with winds of 282 kmh.
Death toll: 259 killed.
Hurricane Andrew Roared into Florida in August 1992, with 266kmh winds.
Death toll: 65 people killed.
"If you're in an evacuation zone, you should be very cautious, you should get out now," Governor Rick Scott told CNN. "This is a powerful storm bigger than our state."
Bumper-to-bumper traffic was snaking north out of the peninsula, with mattresses, petrol cans and kayaks strapped to car roofs.
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.
Amid the exodus, nearly one- third of all petrol stations in Florida's metropolitan areas were out of petrol, according to Gasbuddy.com, a retail fuel price tracking service.
Mandatory evacuations along Georgia's Atlantic coast and some of South Carolina's islands were due to start yesterday.
Irma was set to hit the US two weeks after Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, struck Texas, killing about 60 people .
In Cuba, Irma barrelled in for a direct hit at Ciego de Avila province around midnight last Friday. Choppy seas, grey skies, sheets of rain, bending palm trees, huge waves crashing over sea walls and downed power lines filled state-run television's evening news cast.
Irma was forecast to bring dangerous storm surges of up to 3m to parts of Cuba's northern coast, and the central and north- western Bahamas. Meteorologists had warned that scenes of far greater devastation were sure to emerge as Irma worked her way along the northern coast westward through Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara provinces, where it was forecast to turn north toward Florida.
Cuban officials yesterday reported "significant damage" in parts of the island's centre without providing further details, but said there were as yet no casualties.
More than a million people on the Caribbean's largest island have been evacuated as a precaution, the authorities said.
Weary Caribbean islanders, however, have to brace themselves for a second storm as Jose, a Category 4 hurricane, was expected to bring heavy rains and winds of up to 240kmh yesterday.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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Cuban coast battered by Irma's winds str.sg/4VPf