Hurricane Irma continued its deadly sweep through the Caribbean on Friday, escalating once again to a Category 5 storm as it made landfall in Cuba during the night with sustained winds of 160 mph.
Residents of Florida waited with frazzled nerves and growing fears as the powerful storm, with a footprint as big as Texas, roared toward the mainland United States.
“Obviously Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States,” said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Anybody from Alabama to North Carolina should be watching this storm very closely.”
The center of the storm was expected to reach the Florida Keys by Sunday morning and aim its full force on southern Florida — whether Miami or Naples would bear the initial brunt was still unclear — through Monday.
Tornadoes were possible as soon as midday Saturday across central and southern Florida, continuing through Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm had briefly been downgraded Friday morning to a Category 4 status, with slightly slower winds, but that proved to be temporary.
A total of 6.5 million people in Florida have been ordered to evacuate, according to the state Department of Emergency Management. Mandatory evacuations were in place for most of Florida’s coastal communities, affecting 650,000 people in the Miami-Dade area. Already, supplies of water, batteries, flashlights and plywood had disappeared from most stores throughout South Florida.
Streams of fleeing evacuees, from the Florida Keys to Miami and farther north, were creeping north on the state’s two major north-south arterials, Interstates 75 and 95. Traffic tie-ups were reported as far north as Ocala, 80 miles northwest of Orlando.
“All Floridians should be prepared to evacuate soon,” Gov. Rick Scott said. “Remember Hurricane Andrew [in 1992] was one of the worst storms in the history of Florida. Irma is more devastating on its current path.… This is a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.”
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine called it a “nuclear storm.”
The National Weather Service in Key West tweeted in capital letters: “This is as real as it gets. Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe. You still have time to evacuate.”
At dusk Friday, downtown Miami was all but empty except for police. Everything was closed. Plywood covered store windows and sandbags were stacked in front of some buildings. City buses were bound for the garage where the fleet parks.
Compared to Hurricane Harvey, which hit southeast Texas, Irma will be faster, making it unlikely that Florida will see the kind of severe inland flooding that crippled Houston. However, for coastal cities such as Miami and Miami Beach, an anticipated storm surge of up to 10 feet could be catastrophic.
It’s unknown exactly where the storm is going to make landfall, although it’s now more likely it will be on the Gulf of Mexico side of the state rather than the Atlantic. On Friday, the projected path kept edging west, making the risk in the Fort Myers/Naples area greater than the Miami area. Regardless of where it enters the state, the storm is expected to turn very slightly to the east.
The storm is expected to drop between 8 to 10 inches of rain — a fifth of what Harvey dumped in parts of Texas — and up to 20 inches in isolated spots.
Florida Power and Light, which serves about half the state, said it expected more than 4 million homes to lose power.
“Everyone in Florida will be impacted in some way by this storm,” said Eric Silagy, a spokesman for FPL.
Florida has been under a state of emergency most of the week, with official hurricane warnings in effect as of 11 p.m. Thursday for southern and central Florida. The outer bands of Irma were expected to creep over the state by Saturday morning, intensifying through the day.
Scott ordered all schools closed Friday. Many will serve as shelters. Some in the Miami area had already reached capacity by midday Friday.
Miami’s homeless population of slightly more than 1,000 were being given the choice of going to a shelter or being taken involuntarily for a mental health evaluation, according to the Associated Press.
Florida, Florida State, Central Florida and South Florida universities all canceled their football games.
Scott also ordered the evacuation of seven cities near Lake Okeechobee.
But not everyone has had the ability to leave. At a mobile home park in northwest Miami, just blocks from the Little River Canal, many of the mainly Haitian and Latin American immigrant residents said they would be forced to remain.
Ernius Nonord, a 71-year-old Haitian, waved his hand defiantly and insisted he wasn’t worried. “I believe that God will keep me safe,” he said. “But if I had big money, I would go stay in [a] big house.”
His neighbors, Leon and Muryada Noel, who have a 4-year-old daughter, also are staying. “It’s going to be OK,” Leon Noel said, cradling his daughter in his lap. “The water only comes to here,” he said, gesturing to a spot around his ankle. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency resources have been put into place to aid victims of the coming storm, and other resources were also on the way: The Navy has ordered the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and the amphibious transport dock ship New York to join other Navy resources to deliver humanitarian relief if requested.
The ships can provide medical support, medium- and heavy-lift air support and other services, including security, route clearance, and water purification.
As Florida prepared for the worst, many islands in the Caribbean already have experienced it. The death toll is at least 20 and is expected to rise, with Category 4 Hurricane Jose advancing right behind Irma.
The Turks and Caicos Islands were dealing with Irma on Friday. The island of Barbuda was almost destroyed by the storm but remarkably had only one fatality.
Many Americans were left stranded on some of the islands that populate that area of the Caribbean. It may be days before damage in some of the smaller islands is known.
Puerto Rico was spared the brunt of the storm but still has more than 1 million people without power.
Another hurricane is also in the wings: Katia, which is expected to soon have winds topping 110 mph, could bring serious misery to Mexico when it makes landfall on Saturday. It is slowly moving to the area between Tampico and Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico.
The area has been hard hit by rains recently and there is concern that flooding and landslides could be inevitable.
In the path of Jose, which is churning in the Atlantic with winds of 150 mph, a hurricane watch was in effect for the storm-ravaged islands of Antigua, Barbuda, and Anguilla, St. Martin and St. Barts.
There is no danger that Jose will follow Irma to the United States, forecasters say, as it is expected to take a strong northerly turn after passing the islands and be a danger only to Bermuda and Atlantic shipping lanes.