CAIBARIEN, Cuba (AP) — Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts and Floridians emptied stores of plywood and bottled water after Hurricane Irma left at least 16 people dead and thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands and spun toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.
Warships and planes were dispatched with food, water and troops after Irma smashed homes, schools and roads, laying waste to some of the world’s most beautiful and exclusive tourist destinations. On the island of St. Thomas, power lines and towers were toppled, leaves were stripped off plants and trees, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged and the harbor was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.
Thousands of tourists were trapped on St. Martin, St. Barts, and the Virgin Islands in the path of Category 3 Hurricane Jose, which threatened to roll in from the Atlantic and strike as early as Saturday.
Irma weakened from a Category 5 storm to Category 4 on Friday morning with maximum sustained winds near 150 mph (240 kph), but it remained a powerful hurricane. Florida braced for the onslaught, with forecasters warning that Irma could slam headlong into the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, punish the entire length of the state’s Atlantic coast and move into Georgia and South Carolina.
More than a half-million people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to leave as Irma closed in with winds of 175 mph (280 kph). People rushed to board up their homes, take their boats out of the water and gas up their cars. With gasoline running out and tensions rising, the Florida Highway Patrol escorted tanker trucks sent to replenish gas stations.
“It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” Gov. Rick Scott said.
Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, said Irma could easily prove to be the costliest storm in U.S. history.
The hurricane rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti and battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday with waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters). Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was unclear.
Irma also spun Friday morning along the northern coast of Cuba, where thousands of tourists were evacuated from low-lying keys off the coast dotted with all-inclusive resorts. All residents of the area were under mandatory evacuation orders from the Cuban government, which was moving tens of thousands of people from vulnerable coastline.
The first islands hit by the storm were scenes of terrible destruction.
The storm had claimed at least 16 lives, including nine on the French Caribbean islands of St.-Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and three on the British island of Anguilla, Barbuda and the Dutch side of St. Martin.
Officials on St. Thomas said they expected to find more bodies on the island where authorities described the damage as catastrophic and said crews were struggling to reopen roads and restore power.
The hospital on St. Thomas was destroyed and dozens of patients were being evacuated to St. Croix and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Coast Guard. Local officials said a U.S. Navy hospital ship was arriving as early as Friday to care for unknown numbers of injured and two Air Force C-130s transport planes were bringing in food and water.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. The primary focus for now is “making sure people have meals, water and shelter,” Mapp said. “An event of this magnitude is very chilling.”
On St. Martin, an island split between the Dutch Sint Maarten and French St.-Martin, homes were splintered and road signs scattered by the fierce winds. The cafes and clothing shops of the picturesque French seaside village of Marigot were submerged in brown floodwaters and people surveyed the wreckage from whatever shelter they could find. The toll could rise because rescue teams had yet to get a complete look at the damage.
Annick Girardin, minister for France’s overseas territories, said Friday that there had been “scenes of pillaging” of televisions as well as food and water on St. Martin. She said police were working to restore order and ensure urgent care for victims.
The U.S. Consulate General in Curaçao said it believes about 6,000 Americans were stranded on St. Martin. The consulate was collecting the names and locations of the stranded and said it was working with the U.S. and other governments to try to figure out how to get the Americans off the island either by air or boat.
Irma also slammed the French island of St. Barts, tearing off roofs and knocking out electricity in the high-end tourist destination.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the storm “caused wide-scale destruction of infrastructure, houses and businesses.”
“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.
Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose strengthened into a Category 3 storm with 120 mph (195 kph) winds.
Two Dutch navy ships were in St. Martin with vital supplies. And two Dutch military aircraft were being sent the island of Curacao and on to St. Martin to deliver food and water intended to last the population of 40,000 five days. The aircraft were carrying 100 extra troops to deliver aid, repair infrastructure and restore order.
Britain was sending hundreds of troops and the Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean to Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands.
In Anguilla, officials reported extensive damage to the airport, hospitals, shelters and schools and said 90 percent of roads were impassable.
On Barbuda, nearly every building was damaged when the hurricane’s core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday. About 60 percent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
He said roads and telecommunications systems were wrecked and recovery will take months, if not years.
“It is just really a horrendous situation,” Browne said.
Dominican and Haitian authorities reported flooding and minor damage in Irma’s wake but no immediate deaths or widespread destruction. The neighboring nations remained vulnerable Friday to the sort of flooding that has killed thousands in previous storms and hurricanes.
About a million people were without power in Puerto Rico after Irma sideswiped the island overnight, and nearly half the territory’s hospitals were relying on generators. No injuries were reported.