Conditions were forecast to deteriorate across South Florida as early as daybreak Saturday with the arrival of Hurricane Irma, a storm that has already left a wake of death and destruction in the Caribbean islands.
Though Irma weakened somewhat since killing at least 22 people and leaving thousands more homeless, the storm is expected to batter the lower half of the Sunshine State with hours of winds on par with a powerful tornado.
Irma had sustained winds of 155 mph as it moved within a few hundred miles of Miami on Friday, and was not expected to lose much if any strength overnight.
Meteorologists predicted the storm will be more devastating than Hurricane Andrew, which raked across Florida in August 1992, causing $26.5 billion in damage. About 1.9 million people lived in Miami-Dade County when Andrew struck. Now about 6 million people live in South Florida's three counties and another 4 million live in threatened Orlando and Jacksonville.
"The effect of Irma on the state of Florida is going to be much greater than Andrew's effect," said Weather Channel senior hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross, who was a local television meteorologist during Andrew. "We're dealing with an entirely different level of phenomenon. There is no storm to compare with this. Unless you go way back to 1926."
Kate Hale, Miami-Dade's emergency management chief — who grabbed national attention during Andrew by beseeching "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?" — said by nearly every measure Irma looks far worse.
"Nobody can make this up. This storm. This track at this point," Hale told the Associated Press on Thursday.
Between Hurricane Harvey's record weeklong flooding, devastating Western wildfires and Irma, she called the effects on the national economy "potentially staggering."
The National Weather Service is forecasting tropical-storm-force winds will reach Miami by 8 a.m. Saturday, and Palm Beach County to its north by 2 p.m. For coastal residents, the storm surge could start arriving Saturday as the hurricane's winds pile up water along the coast, temporarily raising the sea level 5 feet to 10 feet and sending heavy waves towering on top of that.
The eye of the storm is expected to make landfall somewhere in the Florida Keys or on the state's southern coast by daybreak Sunday.
"Irma is likely to make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state," the National Hurricane Center warned.
Meanwhile, the center's forecasters also are watching Hurricane Jose, which on Friday became a major hurricane with sustained 150 mph winds. The storm is expected to swipe the same islands Irma just devastated — Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Martin and St. Barts on Saturday, with tropical storm conditions possibly extending to Antigua, the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.
Many of those islands still are struggling to assess Irma's toll. The hurricane smashed homes, schools, hospitals, stores, roads and boats on Wednesday and Thursday. It knocked out power, water and telephone service, trapped thousands of tourists and stripped the lush green trees of leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted-looking landscape. Authorities reported looting and gunfire in St. Martin, and a curfew was imposed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The dead included 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands, and one each in Barbuda and Anguilla.
On St. Thomas, the hospital was destroyed, power lines and towers were toppled, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged and the harbor was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses. The airport, which serves both St. Thomas and St. John, was not expected to resume operating until after Jose passes.
In heavily damaged Barbuda, Stevet Jeremiah's 2-year-old son was swept to his death after the hurricane ripped the roof off her house and filled it with water.
"There was so much water beating past us. We had to crawl to get to safety. Crawl," she said. "I have never seen anything like this in my life, in all the years I experienced hurricanes. And I don't ever, ever, ever want to see something like this again."
Authorities rushed to evacuate as many people as possible from Barbuda ahead of the new storm.
Jose will be "insult added to injury definitely, but nothing compared to what they already went through," said Jeff Masters of the private forecasting service Weather Underground. "It's going to hamper relief efforts, so that's a big deal."
In Florida and Georgia, at least 1.4 million people were rushing to get out of Irma's path by Saturday. Gas shortages and gridlock impeded the evacuations, turning normally simple trips into tests of will. Parts of Interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper, while very few cars drove on the southbound lanes, which Florida Gov. Rick Scott did not reverse because he said they were needed to deliver gas and supplies. Scott said people fleeing could drive slowly in the shoulder lane on highways.
Manny Zuniga left his home in Miami at midnight Thursday to avoid the traffic gridlock that he'd seen on television. It took him 12 hours to go 230 miles to Orlando — a trip that normally takes four hours.
"We're getting out of this state," he said of his wife, two children, two dogs and a ferret. "Irma is going to take all of Florida."
Local governments were stretched to house thousands of residents who stayed behind. In Broward County, north of Miami, half of the hurricane shelters were full Friday afternoon, and Mayor Barbara Sharief said four more would open that evening — bringing the county's total shelter capacity to 18,500.
She said she considered the heavy use of the shelters a good thing: "I think people are paying attention."
Authorities expect a disastrous scene once Irma passes — its core is not expected to cross the Florida/Georgia border until Monday afternoon. Scott activated 4,000 Florida National Guard members ahead of the storm.
Florida Power & Light Co. officials said they expect 9 million of the utility's 10 million customers to lose power. The company has 13,500 crews from around the country, as well as its own, on hand to restore power once hurricane and tropical winds subside.
"We're frankly more prepared for this hurricane than we have been for any storm in the history of our company," said Eric Silagy, the utility's CEO. But Hurricane Irma is the kind that "can snap concrete poles and bend metal," he added.
Exelon, the parent company of BGE, Pepco and several other electric utilities, said Friday that it had mobilized more than 1,000 utility contractors, including line workers, tree crews and safety personnel, to prepare to head to Florida and Georgia to aid recovery efforts.
Meteorologists expect Irma to weaken as it moves into the U.S. mainland, becoming a tropical depression somewhere over the Southeast by Tuesday. Whether its track would bring any impacts to Maryland remained uncertain Friday.
The hurricane center's forecast cone suggested a path over Georgia and Alabama after Irma rakes up the Florida peninsula, bringing rain and winds into Tennessee and Kentucky on Tuesday and Wednesday. But if the track shifts to the northeast, the storm's threat to Maryland "could be more significant Tuesday through Thursday," meteorologists at the National Weather Service's Baltimore/Washington forecast office said.
"At this moment we are looking at the possible threats of flooding rains and isolated tornadoes," they wrote Friday.
Gov. Larry Hogan urged Marylanders to prepare, just in case, and said the state "stands ready to support our friends and neighbors in states that will be dealing with the impacts from this major hurricane first."
The Associated Press and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this article.