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Hurricane Irma Strengthens, Tears Through Cuba on Its Way to Florida

Hurricane Irma tore through northern Cuba during its long, destructive march toward Florida, where it’s expected to bring catastrophic damage to parts of the state.

The powerful Category 5 storm had maximum sustained winds of 160 mph when it made landfall on Cuba’s Camaguey Archipelago, the National Hurricane Center said late Friday.

It edged closer to South Florida after killing 24 people in the Caribbean this week, and strengthened to a Category 5 storm in Cuba. Hours earlier Friday, it was a Category 4.

Irma is expected to be near the Florida Keys and South Florida by early Sunday, and many residents there have moved inland. About 5.6 million people in the state have been ordered to evacuate, Gov. Rick Scott said.

Forecasters and Florida officials sent dire warnings imploring residents on the path of the storm to evacuate and escape Irma’s wrath.

“If you have been ordered to evacuate, leave now. Not tonight, not in an hour, now,” Scott said Friday night. Staying in homes could subject residents to storm surge as high as 12 feet, the governor added.

The National Weather Service also urged residents to evacuate .

“This is as real as it gets, nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe … you still have time to evacuate,” the National Weather Service tweeted.

Here are the latest developments

– Late Friday night, Irma’s center was about 120 miles east of Caibarien, Cuba.

— Before Irma pounded Cuba, it had slammed the Turks and Caicos, and southeastern Bahamas.

— Irma could overwhelm parts of the Bahamas, a nation of about 390,000, with storm surges of up to 20 feet — well above the islands’ elevation, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

— In the Caribbean, hard-hit Barbuda and St. Martin islands wearily prepared for Hurricane Jose, which could hit there over the weekend.

— Florida officials estimated that 5.6 million residents are under evacuation orders.

— Irma could cause power outages for weeks in parts of South Florida, and more than 4.1 million customers — or 9 million people — could be affected by outages at some point, Florida Power and Light Co. said.

— The Red Cross said as many as 26 million people could be exposed to destructive winds and torrential rain just in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.

— At its peak, a then-Category 5 Irma sustained maximum wind speeds of at least 185 mph for longer (37 hours) than any storm on record. The Red Cross estimates 1.2 million people have been battered by the storm.

— Irma led to at least 24 deaths in the Caribbean. Nine of the deaths were in unspecified French territories, one on Barbuda, one at the British overseas territory of Anguilla, two in Dutch-administered St. Maarten, four in the British Virgin Islands, four on the US Virgin Islands, and three in Puerto Rico.

— Hurricane warnings are in effect for parts of central Cuba, and the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas. Hurricane warnings also are in effect from Sebastian Inlet on the east coast, southward around the Florida Peninsula to Anna Maria Island on the Panhandle. The warning includes the Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.

Tracking Hurricane Irma’s path

— Irma could overwhelm parts of the Bahamas, a nation of about 390,000, with storm surges of up to 20 feet — well above the islands’ elevation, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

Nervous Florida waits

US and European forecast models predicted the eye could strike the Florida Keys and then the Everglades, west of Miami, on Saturday night into Sunday morning.

“It’s not a question of whether Florida is going to be impacted — it’s a question of how bad Florida is going to be impacted,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said.

‘Ahead of the game’: Florida seniors, nursing homes prep for Hurricane Irma

Though the core has the most power, Irma is huge; winds of at least tropical-storm force cover 70,000 square miles — larger than the area of Florida (65,000 square miles). At some point this weekend, the entire state could see at least hurricane-force gusts of 74 mph and above, CNN’s Myers said.

Other states bracing for effects

Florida is not the only state preparing for possible impact. The FEMA administrator said Alabama and North Carolina should watch the storm.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation for Saturday for some barrier islands.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded the state of emergency to include a total of 94 counties

Devastation to islands

Irma brought heavy rain and powerful winds to the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands.

Residents of the islands, a British overseas territory with about 35,000 people, were told to stay put.

Desmond Piccolo Henry took shelter in his concrete home with his wife and a friend on one of the islands, Providenciales, as the storm rocked the area.

“It’s a concrete house, but trust me, it was shaking. My friend was saying, ‘Oh my God, I think God is coming, why are we going through this?’ ”

Henry’s home survived with just a few shingles lost, but people have told him that roofs were torn off nearby structures and debris crushed some cars. Video he posted to Facebook showed downed tree limbs and other destruction.

The capital island of Grand Turk suffered “quite a bit of damage,” including to part of a hospital’s roof, Gov. John Freeman told CNN.

After Irma, Hurricane Jose looms

The Caribbean islands already pummeled by Irma have begun assessing the damage. Shredded buildings, battered cars and streets submerged in water are a common sight.

Barbuda, one of two major islands in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, is barely habitable, with about 95% of its buildings damaged, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.

Browne estimated the damage will cost $100 million to fix on the island of 1,800 residents.

Anguilla, Barbuda, St. Martin and St. Barts are under a hurricane warning for Hurricane Jose, which could pass close to those islands Saturday. The government called for voluntary evacuations from Barbuda, Browne said.

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