Hurricane Irma kills 9 in Caribbean islands as Florida awaits storm

MIAMI — Outer bands of the unusually powerful Hurricane Irma battered parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday morning, threatening serious flooding a day after leaving severe destruction and at least nine dead across a string of Caribbean islands to the east.

Irma — a Category 5 storm that has kept sustained winds of 180 mph longer than any other on record — knocked out electricity a day earlier to more than 1 million customers in Puerto Rico as it churned off the U.S. territory, and devastated smaller islands, including Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands.

Irma could next hit the Atlantic archipelagos of the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas — and by the weekend might reach a nervous Florida, where people have flocked to stores to prepare and some communities have ordered evacuations.

“If you decide to stay in the Florida Keys, you are on your own,” said Roman Gastesi, administrator of Monroe County, which ordered everyone off the small islands off the state’s southern coast ahead of the storm’s anticipated approach.

Irma on Wednesday left at least nine people dead, including six on St. Martin, two on St. Bart’s and one in Barbuda.

The latter is barely habitable, with nearly all its buildings damaged, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda said.

On Thursday morning, Irma’s powerful core was moving off the mountainous northern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and could leave up to 15 inches of rain — amounts that could trigger dangerous flooding and mudslides, the National Hurricane Center said.

Around 6 a.m. MDT, Irma’s center was about 110 miles north of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, moving west-northwest with maximum sustained winds of 180 mph — well above the 157 mph threshold of a Category 5 storm.

Barbuda, one of two major islands in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, took a major hit Wednesday, with about 95 percent of its buildings damaged, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.

Browne described the damage as “unprecedented” and “absolutely devastating,” estimating it will cost $100 million to rebuild.

Irma’s eye passed directly over Barbuda on Wednesday, leaving the small island’s 1,800 residents largely incommunicado after it knocked over the telecommunications system and cell towers.

Irma is one of three active hurricanes in the Atlantic basin; the last time this happened was in 2010. Jose, in the open Atlantic far to the southeast of Irma, has become a hurricane, as has Katia in the Gulf of Mexico.

A hurricane warning is in effect for some areas in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Hurricane or tropical storm conditions also are possible late this week in parts of Cuba.

It’s too early to tell whether it will make landfall on the U.S. mainland. Some computer models show it could churn near Florida’s southern and east coasts by early Sunday.

Officials are ordering some evacuations and shutting down schools.

The tropical storm-force wind field from Irma stretches over 300 miles from end to end. If it were centered over New York, the tropical storm-force winds would stretch from Baltimore to Boston.

Gov. Rick Scott urged Floridians to heed any evacuation order.

“(A) storm surge could cover your house. We can rebuild homes — we cannot rebuild your family,” he said Wednesday.

Many spent Wednesday stocking up on food or making plans to head inland. Hurricane watches might be issued for parts of South Florida and the Keys on Thursday.

In Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and other cities north of Miami, a mandatory evacuation will go into effect at noon Thursday for some areas, Mayor Barbara Sharief said.

Miami-Dade County ordered people out in some areas, including mobile homes and barrier islands.

Florida is not the only state preparing for possible impact.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has declared a state of emergency for all 100 counties, while his Georgia counterpart, Nathan Deal, issued a state of emergency for six coastal counties.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also declared a state of emergency.

A hurricane warning is in effect for the central and southeastern Bahamas, and officials there are not taking chances.

Emergency evacuations have been ordered for six southern islands — Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island.

“This is the largest such evacuation in the history of the country,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said.

Kelsey Nowakowski posted images to Instagram of the aftermath in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“This doesn’t look like it was ever a tropical paradise. It looks like an eerie fairy-tale forest,” she said in her post. “During the storm there were a handful of times when we thought we were losing the house’s roof on the floor above, but when we emerged we found our roof intact.”

Michael Coleman took shelter in a cement bunker in St. Thomas.

“The wind was so intense. Trees and roofs flying,” he said.

In Puerto Rico, about 56,680 customers are without water, with the U.S. territory’s northeast hit the hardest, according to Jesus Poupart of the emergency operations center.

Emergency officials are still taking in reports to determine the extent of the damage.

In the northeast city of Fajardo, authorities conducted at least 10 rescues, an emergency dispatcher said.

Of those, five were from flooded homes, two of people trapped in vehicles, and three who were trapped in an elevator, the dispatcher said.

In San Juan, 900,000 customers are without power after strong winds hit the island. There were no immediate reports of injuries on the island of about 3.4 million people.