MIAMI — Hurricane Irma began battering parts of Cuba and the central Bahamas on Friday afternoon after leaving a trail of devastation in the Caribbean, while an anxious South Florida and Miami prepared for what could be a major hit by the weekend.
Irma, now a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph, slammed the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas early Friday before its powerful core headed between northern Cuba and central Bahamas.
At least 24 people were killed this week as Irma pummeled northern Caribbean islands such as Barbuda and the Virgin Islands.
In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people — nearly 70 percent of the U.S. territory’s utility customers — were left without power, the governor’s office said.
Irma is expected be near the Florida Keys and South Florida by early Sunday as at least a Category 4 hurricane, and many residents there are moving inland or to shelters.
Some counties are under evacuation orders, but “all Floridians should be prepared to evacuate soon,” Gov. Rick Scott said Friday.
“Today is the day to do the right thing for your family. Get inland for safety,” Scott said at a news conference.
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 already been battered by the storm.
The National Hurricane Center has warned Irma could “landfall in Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center.”
There could be storm surges up to 12 feet in coastal areas, which could “inundate so many low-level houses, especially on the Keys,” meteorologist Chad Myers said.
U.S. and European forecast models predict the eye could strike the 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 Friday, urging people to heed evacuation orders.
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 late Saturday into Tuesday, the entire state could see at least hurricane-force gusts of 74 mph and above.
In Miami-Dade County, about 660,000 of its 2.6 million population have been asked to evacuate, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
Farther north on Daytona Beach, Michael Hanna was itching to leave Friday morning but first had to board up his beach apparel store.
“I stayed a little longer than anybody else so I can cover up my business,” he said. “My kids are panicking; my wife, she’s panicking. … (Saturday) by 6 a.m., 7 a.m., we’re going to be on the road, heading to Georgia.”
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.
“Our crews will likely have to rebuild parts of the system,” the utility said.
Evacuees stocked up on supplies, waited for hours at gas stations and sat through massive traffic jams.
People also flocked to South Florida airports, but schedules were in flux. More than half of Friday’s flights were canceled at Miami International Airport, and “most of the airlines will suspend flights after (Friday) through Monday, depending on the condition of the airport,” spokesman Greg Chin said.
Florida is not the only state preparing for possible impact. Long, the FEMA administrator, said people from Alabama to North Carolina should watch the storm.
Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 30 counties and has ordered evacuations for coastal areas east of Interstate 95, including Savannah, starting Saturday.
The governors of North Carolina and South Carolina also declared states of emergency.