As Hurricane Irma devastated several Caribbean islands with near-record 185 mph winds Wednesday and early Thursday, tens of thousands of Floridians were evacuating their homes, days before the storm was expected to slam into the U.S. mainland.
Forecasts Wednesday suggested that Irma would pound the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Cuba over the next few days before moving on to Florida. The cyclone could swipe Miami and Florida’s Atlantic coast Sunday and Monday — all while remaining a powerful Category 4 or 5 hurricane.
The storm could make landfall in the southeastern United States again early next week, and possibly reach Maryland by Tuesday.
Reports of devastation across the Caribbean, with images still fresh of the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey on southeastern Texas, prompted an estimated 25,000 people to evacuate the Florida Keys on Wednesday. Officials called for some of the Miami region’s 6 million residents to consider fleeing, as well. The National Hurricane Center expected to issue hurricane watches along the Florida coastline Thursday.
But uncertainty in the forecast challenged preparations. Florida Gov. Rick Scott waived highway tolls and told people that if they were thinking about leaving: “Get out now.”
Yet he acknowledged, “it's hard to tell people where to go until we know exactly where it will go.”
It has been almost 25 years since Florida took a hit from a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Andrew, which struck the state’s Atlantic coast just south of Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph, caused catastrophic damage.
“We'll see what happens,” President Donald Trump said in Washington. “It looks like it could be something that could be not good, believe me, not good.”
Irma has killed at least eight people and injured 23 in French Caribbean island territories as the dangerous Category 5 storm roared over the Caribbean, France's interior minister said Thursday.
Speaking on French radio France Info, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said the death toll in Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy could be higher because rescue teams have yet to finish their inspection of the islands.
"The reconnaissance will really start at daybreak," Collomb said.
Irma blacked out much of Puerto Rico, raking the U.S. territory with heavy wind and rain while staying just out to sea, and it headed early Thursday toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
By early Thursday, the center of the storm was about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moving west-northwest near 16 mph (26 kph).
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever measured destroyed homes and flooded streets across a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean on Wednesday. The storm passed directly over Barbuda, leaving the island of some 1,700 people incommunicado.
“A significant number of the houses have been totally destroyed,” said Lionel Hurst, chief of staff of Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
The storm battered the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John for hours as it approached Puerto Rico.
Later Wednesday night, Irma lashed Puerto Rico with heavy rain and powerful winds, leaving nearly 900,000 people without power. Nearly 50,000 without water, the U.S. territory's emergency management agency said. Fourteen hospitals were using generators after losing power, and trees and light poles were strewn across roads.
Puerto Ricans were told that power outages caused by the storm might not be repaired for four to six months. The U.S. territory’s public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a deep economic crisis, causing infrastructure to deteriorate.
Trump approved an emergency declaration this week for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, home to more than 3 million U.S. citizens. That means the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and provide other services to be be paid largely by the U.S. government.
The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma's magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
Juan Tosado, a maintenance worker for the Puerto Rican government, said he lost power for three months after Hurricane Hugo killed dozens of people on the island territory in 1989. "I expect the same from this storm," he said. "It's going to be bad."
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello told islanders to prepare for the worst. "If we don't,” he said, “it could be devastating."
The hurricane center has emphasized the uncertainty in forecasts that extend more than a few days out, but Wednesday evening gave its strongest words of caution for the Sunshine State.
“The threat of direct hurricane impacts in Florida over the weekend and early next week has increased," the center said. “Hurricane watches could be issued for portions of the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula on Thursday.”
Irma is expected to hit Florida by early Sunday. Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard members by Friday.
The mayor of Miami-Dade County said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most coastal areas. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to assemble three days' worth of food and water.
Amid the dire forecasts and the example set by Hurricane Harvey less than two weeks ago in Houston, some people who usually ride out storms in Florida seemed unwilling to risk it this time.
“Should we leave?” asked Martie McClain, 66, of Plantation. “A lot of people that I wouldn't expect to leave are leaving. So, it's like, ‘Oh, wow!’ ”
Still, she was undecided. She worried about getting stuck in traffic and running out of gas.
While meteorologists’ immediate focus is on Irma’s life-threatening winds and storm surge, they are keeping an eye on longer-range forecasting models that suggest a significant impact for the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic next week.
The National Weather Service office for Baltimore and Washington cautioned that Irma could reach the region between Monday and Wednesday, bringing flooding, damaging winds and possibly tornadoes. Forecasters urged residents to prepare disaster plans and kits.
“As I sometimes say, tropical storms are different beasts from regular low-pressure areas, meaning that [they] contain huge amounts of moisture and can produce prodigious amounts of rainfall,” Andy Woodcock, a weather service meteorologist, wrote in a forecast discussion posted Wednesday. “We are still almost a week away from having to deal with this, but if this is how things play out expect a very active weather day Tuesday.”
As Irma approaches the United States, conditions are forecast to remain ripe for the storm to maintain strength. Warm water is fuel for hurricanes, and Irma was moving over water that was 1.8 degrees warmer than normal.
Four other storms have had winds as strong in the overall Atlantic region, but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which usually have warmer waters. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980. Wilma in 2005, Gilbert in 1988 and a 1935 Florida Keys storm all reached 185 mph.
The tropics are otherwise active. Storms Katia and Jose both reached hurricane strength Wednesday, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.
Katia was in the Gulf of Mexico, 185 miles from the Mexican resort city of Veracruz. Jose was on Irma’s heels in the Atlantic, more than 1,000 miles from the Lesser Antilles, and is expected to become a major hurricane Friday or Saturday. It could brush some of the islands just ravaged by Irma.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.