At least 23 dead in Caribbean as Hurricane Irma heads for Florida

Hundreds of thousands of residents, including many elderly people, leave US state

Florida has braced for one of the most violent storms on record, as Hurricane Irma barrelled through the Caribbean and Cuba on Friday, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

Though the hurricane was downgraded to category four, it was due to reach the mainland of the United States by Sunday morning.

Winds increased to 155 miles per hour as the hurricane passed over warmer waters of Cuba and the Bahamas, the National Weather Center said, while the eye of the storm has doubled its size as it has moved across the Caribbean.

Hundreds of thousands of residents, including a high proportion of elderly people who have retired to the so-called sunshine state, had left the region by Friday night. The storm is expected to dwarf Hurricane Andrew, the 1992 storm which devastated Florida.


‘Life-threatening wind impacts’

"Irma is likely to make landfall in Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the centre," the National Hurricane Center said.

Indications were that Hurricane Irma had shifted its course slightly west, with the result that the entire state of Florida is likely to be hit by the storm. But officials said that, even if the eye of the storm bypasses Florida, the region will face hurricane winds and a storm surge of up to 12ft.

Seven cities near Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida were given a mandatory evacuation notice.

Florida's governor Rick Scott urged residents not to stay. "This is a catastrophic storm our state has never seen. We can rebuild your home, we cannot rebuild your life," he said.

“Don’t wait. If you’re going to leave, leave. If you’ know what’s going to happen, do it now. The mistake is when people wait.”

Responding to reports that some businesses and airlines had hiked prices ahead of the arrival of the hurricane, he said: “We have an attorney general that will prosecute people for price-gouging. This is the time to help our neighbours, this is not the time to take advantage of our neighbours.”

‘Better wake up’

The head of FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - said the hurricane would "devastate" the region. "Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States in either Florida or some of the southeastern states. The entire southeastern United States better wake up and pay attention."

The US Army began moving ships, including the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, into position to help with humanitarian relief efforts if necessary.

Departing for Camp David for the weekend, President Trump, whose own Mar-a-Lago estate is located in Palm Beach, Florida, said the US was prepared "at the highest level".

Meanwhile, the death toll from Irma in the Caribbean rose to 23, officials confirmed, as islands in the region counted the cost of the battering the region received. The hurricane devastated 95 per cent of Barbuda, while also wreaking destruction in the British and US Virgin Islands, St Martin's and St Barts.

Looting and violence

Amid reports of looting and violence in St Martin’s, the Dutch government said it would send hundreds of extra troops to the region.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said this was to "ensure that there is food and water, but also to ensure security", saying looting was a "serious" problem on the Dutch part of the hurricane-hit island.

Concern was also growing about Hurricane Jose and Hurricane Katia, which have been gathering pace in the region. Jose has been upgraded to a category four hurricane and may follow a similar trajectory to Irma, while Katia is likely to make landfall early on Saturday in the state of Veracruz in Mexico.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent