Hurricane Irma started “pummelling” the Turks and Caicos islands Thursday evening with sustained winds of 280 km/h, the National Hurricane Center said.
Earlier in the day, French, British and Dutch rescuers rushed aid to a string of Caribbean islands devastated by the hurricane, which left at least 12 dead and thousands homeless.
Warships and military planes were dispatched to the stricken zone with food, water and troops after the fearsome Category 5 storm smashed homes, schools and roads.
Hundreds of kilometres to the northwest, Florida braced for the onslaught, with forecasters warning Irma could slam headlong into the Miami metropolitan area of six million people, punish the entire length of the state’s Atlantic coast and push on into Georgia and South Carolina.
Officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for tens of thousands of people in the Florida Keys and in exposed or low-lying parts of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area as Irma closed in with winds of 280 km/h.
The hurricane centre said Irma will move toward the Bahamas this evening and then closer to the north coast of Cuba in the next day or so.
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As the storm arrived in Turks and Caicos, Gov. John Freeman told CBC News the wind was a making “tremendous noise,” tearing off roofs and tossing cars, but the extent of the damage wouldn’t be known until Irma passes.
“These very beautiful islands, which many Canadians come to each year to holiday, are very low lying, they are vulnerable,” Freeman said. “We have to look at not just the wind speed, but the sea surge, and the sea surge will produce inundation and flooding.”
Freeman said many people had flown out of the country before Irma hit, but some tourists chose to stay at hotels.
“They’ve been built knowing the hurricane challenges, and we would hope and expect within those hotels, they should be safe,” he said.
Skies over the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, were still clear just after noon local time. About a million people were without power in Puerto Rico after Irma sideswiped the island, but there were no immediate reports of large-scale casualties.