Irma, leaving behind catastrophic damage, heads towards Florida

At least 18 people were killed as Irma pummelled northern Caribbean islands such as Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands.

FILE: Debris and a boat washed up onto shore in Marigot, near the Bay of Nettle, on the French Collectivity of Saint Martin, after the passage of Hurricane Irma on 6 September 2017. Picture: AFP.

CAPE TOWN/ PROVIDENCIALES - Hurricane Irma hurtled north of the Caribbean on Friday, leaving catastrophic damage in its wake as it closed in on Florida, where it could slam into Miami this weekend.

Irma has been downgraded to an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm, but at its peak, it sustained maximum wind speeds of almost 300 kilometres per hour, making it one of the strongest Atlantic storms on record.

At least 18 people were killed as Irma pummelled northern Caribbean islands such as Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands.

In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people were left without power.

Florida Governor Rick Scott says: “This storm is wider than our entire state and is expected to cause major and life-threatening impact from coast to coast. Remember Hurricane Andrew was one of the worst storms in the history of Florida. Irma is more devastating on its current path.”

A mandatory evacuation on Georgia’s Atlantic coast was due to begin on Saturday, Governor Nathan Deal said. The storm comes two weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, claiming around 60 lives and causing property damage estimated at as much as $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana.

Irma ravaged a series of small islands in the northeast Caribbean, including Barbuda, St Martin and the British and US Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.

DEATHS RISE

The death toll from the storm has risen as emergency services got access to remote areas pummelled by heavy winds and rain. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said on Friday that nine people were killed and at least seven were missing after the hurricane crashed into France’s Caribbean islands of St Martin and St Barthelemy.

“One hundred and twelve people were injured,” Collomb said, adding there could be more victims.

Four people died in the US Virgin Islands, a government spokesman said, and a major hospital was badly damaged by the wind. A US amphibious assault ship arrived in the US Virgin Islands on Thursday and sent helicopters for medical evacuations from the destroyed hospital.

WATCH: Hurricane Irma turns deadly

A man was reported missing after trying to cross a river in Cerca La Source in Haiti’s Central Plateau region.

On Barbuda, one person died and the eastern Caribbean island was reduced “to rubble,” Prime Minister Gaston Browne said. In the British overseas territory of Anguilla, another person was killed and the hospital and airport were damaged, emergency service officials said.

Three people were killed in Puerto Rico and around two-thirds of the population had lost electricity, Governor Ricardo Rossello said after the storm rolled by the US territory’s northern coast. A surfer was also reported killed in Barbados.

The storm passed just to the north of the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, causing damage to roofs, flooding and power outages as it approached the impoverished Haitian side, but did not make landfall there.

Cuba evacuated some of the 51,000 tourists visiting the island, particularly 36,000 people at resorts on the northern coast. In Caibarien, a coastal town in the hurricane’s predicted path, residents headed farther inland.

Irma is the strongest hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years, according to the NHC.