Store owners boarded up their windows and families sandbagged their homes to join a mass exodus as Hurricane Irma churned toward Florida after cutting a deadly swath through the Caribbean.
After killing at least 19 people and devastating thousands of homes on a string of Caribbean islands, Irma made landfall in Cuba’s Camaguey Archipelago as a maximum-strength Category Five storm.
It had top winds swirling at 160 miles (260 kilometers) per hour and was bearing down on nearby Florida, with the eye of the storm just 300 miles south-southeast of Miami, according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).
Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew — which killed 65 people in 1992 — Florida’s governor said all of the state’s 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate.
“People have got to understand, 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 snaked north out of the peninsula, with mattresses, gas cans and kayaks strapped to car roofs as residents heeded increasingly insistent warnings to get out.
“It’s not clear that it’s a survivable situation for anybody that is still there in the Keys,” said acting NHC director Ed Rappaport.
North of the Keys, in Miami Beach, Orlando Reyes, an 82- year-old Cuban-American, had suddenly to flee his assisted living facility.
“It is frightening,” he told AFP at a shelter in Miami. “We had to leave without a cent, without taking a bath, or bringing anything.”
President Donald Trump warned residents in Irma’s path faced a threat of “epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen.
“Be safe and get out of its way, if possible,” he tweeted.
Roaring across the Caribbean, the monster storm claimed at least 19 lives as it laid waste to a series of tiny islands like Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin — where 60 percent of homes were wrecked and looting broke out — before slamming into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
“Houses are smashed, the airport is out of action, telephone and electricity poles are on the ground,” Olivier Toussaint, a resident of Saint Barthelemy, told AFP.
“Upside-down cars are in the cemeteries. Boats are sunk in the marina, shops are destroyed.”
Trump “offered support to the French government during this tragic time” in a phone call with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, the White House said.
As Irma barreled toward Florida, meteorologists were closely monitoring two other hurricanes.
Jose, a nearly Category Five storm, was following Irma’s path in the Atlantic, while Katia made landfall in eastern Mexico late Friday just as the country was grappling with its worst earthquake in a century