MIAMI — Florida residents picked store shelves clean and long lines formed at gas pumps Wednesday as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 monster with potentially catastrophic winds of 185 mph, steamed toward the Sunshine State and a possible direct hit on the Miami metropolitan area of nearly 6 million people.
The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic destroyed homes and flooded streets as it roared through a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean some 1,000 miles from Florida.
Forecasters said Irma could strike the Miami area by early Sunday, then rake the entire length of the state’s east coast and push into Georgia and the Carolinas.
“This thing is a buzz saw,” warned Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach. “I don’t see any way out of it.”
Midcie Francis, spokesperson for the National Office of Disaster Services for Antigua and Barbuda, said the government had so far confirmed one death on Barbuda and heavy destruction on the island.
Nearly every building on the island of Barbuda was damaged when the eye of the storm passed almost directly overhead early Wednesday and about 60 percent of the island’s roughly 1,400 people were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press.
“Either they were totally demolished or they would have lost their roof,” Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighboring island. “It is just really a horrendous situation.”
He said roads and telecommunications systems were destroyed and recovery will take months, if not years. A 2-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm, Browne told the AP.
“A significant number of the houses have been totally destroyed,” said Lionel Hurst, the prime minister’s chief of staff.
France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity.
Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
By Wednesday evening the center of the storm was 40 miles northwest of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and 55 miles northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).
The US National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
“We have to prepare for the worst,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “If we don’t, it could be devastating.”
Tourist Pauline Jackson, a 59-year-old registered nurse from Tampa, Florida, puffed on her last cigarette as a San Juan hotel prepared to shutter its doors ahead of the storm.
“I’m in a hurricane here, and when I get home, I’ll be in the same hurricane. It’s crazy,” she said.
She tried to leave ahead of the storm but all flights were sold out, and she worried about her home in Tampa.
“When you’re from Florida, you understand a Category 5 hurricane,” said Jackson, who was scheduled to fly out Friday.
The US National Hurricane Center said Irma’s winds would fluctuate, but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it roared past Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.
By early Sunday, Irma is expected to hit Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard soldiers by Friday and warned that Irma is “bigger, faster and stronger” than Hurricane Andrew. Andrew pummeled south Florida 25 years ago and wiped out entire neighborhoods with ferocious winds.
An estimated 25,000 people or more left the Florida Keys after all visitors were ordered to clear out, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic on the single highway that links the chain of low-lying islands to the mainland.
But because of the uncertainty in any forecast this far out, state and local authorities in Miami and Fort Lauderdale held off for the time being on ordering any widespread evacuations there.
The Israeli consulate has urged citizens in the path of the storm to evacuate. South Florida is home to a large ex-pat community, and the state is a popular tourist destination for vacationing Israelis.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott waived tolls on all Florida highways and told people if they were thinking about leaving to “get out now.” But in the same breath, he acknowledged that “it’s hard to tell people where to go until we know exactly where it will go.”
Amid the dire forecasts and the devastating damage done 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? A lot of people that I wouldn’t expect to leave are leaving. So, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow!'” said Martie McClain, 66, who lives in the South Florida town of Plantation. Still, she was undecided about going and worried about getting stuck in traffic and running out of gas.
The many construction cranes at sites around South Florida could pose a serious threat if they are toppled.
In Miami, the deputy director of the Building Department, Maurice Pons, said that there about two dozen such cranes in the city alone and that they were built to withstand winds up to 145 mph, but not a Category 5 hurricane.
He said he could “not advise staying in a building next to a construction crane during a major hurricane like Irma.”
As people rushed to buy up water and other supplies, board up their homes with plywood and fill up their cars, Scott declared a state of emergency and asked the governors of Alabama and Georgia to waive trucking regulations so gasoline tankers can get fuel into Florida quickly to ease shortages.
It has been almost 25 years since Florida took a hit from a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Andrew struck just south of Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), killing 65 people and inflicting $26 billion in damage. It was at the time the most expensive natural disaster in US history.
“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.”
Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach — the unofficial Southern White House — sits in the path of the storm.
This is only the second time on Earth since satellites started tracking storms about 40 years ago that one maintained 185 mph winds for more than 24 hours, Colorado State’s Klotzbach said.
University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said Irma could easily prove the costliest storm in US history.
Jeff Masters, director of the Weather Underground forecasting service, warned that high winds and large storm surges will damage expensive properties from Miami to Charleston, South Carolina.
“If it goes right up the Gold Coast like the current models are saying, then the Gold Coast is going to become the Mud Coast,” Masters said. “That includes Mar-a-Lago.”
While Florida building codes were tightened and enforced more stringently after Andrew, the population since then has grown, coastal development has continued, and climate change has become more pronounced.
Under 2001 rules, housing in most parts of Florida must be built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, meaning winds of up to 129 mph. Miami-Dade and Broward counties have more stringent building codes requiring some structures to withstand Category 4 winds of 146 mph and 140 mph respectively.
As Irma drew closer, Georgia and South Carolina declared a state of emergency. North Carolina officials also kept a close eye on the hurricane.
“It’s just scary, you know? We want to get to higher ground. Never had a Cat 5, never experienced it,” said Michelle Reynolds, who was leaving the Keys as people filled gas cans and workers covered fuel pumps with “out of service” sleeves.