Floridians hit the highways, scrambled for scarce supplies and hammered plywood over windows as a monster hurricane made landfall in the Caribbean, where it was blamed for at least four deaths.
Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes, set a wild, wind-churned course toward Puerto Rico, with the U.S. mainland in its sights, likely over the weekend.
Amid an overnight assault of battering waves and 185-mph winds, two deaths were reported in French island territories, a third in Anguilla, a British territory, and a fourth in Barbuda, part of a tiny independent nation.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott implored constituents to obey calls to flee the storm’s path when the time came.
"I cannot stress this enough — do not ignore evacuation orders,” Scott said at a news briefing as the storm began lashing Puerto Rico with rain, still on track for the U.S. mainland. “If you’re told to evacuate, don’t wait — get out quickly.”
In warning of the dangers, the governor invoked Hurricane Andrew, which devastated Florida a quarter of a century ago, causing massive destruction and killing nearly 50 people in the state.
“I want everybody to understand the importance of this — this is bigger than Andrew,” Scott told ABC News.
President Trump declared states of emergency in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Florida began activating its National Guard, with 7,000 members told to report for duty Friday.
In Fort Myers, in coastal southwestern Florida, Stephanie Matteson waited in line at a gas station, where she said she had been for 25 minutes.
“I swear, it’s like everyone is in a hurry to get this thing over with — like, ‘Just come on, Irma, and then leave us alone,’” said Matteson, 47. She experienced Hurricane Wilma in 2005, “but Irma’s got more punch, from what they’re saying.”
There was a run on supplies, including bananas and batteries. Anthony Bonner, a bread company distributor, predicted that the 28 racks of bread he was delivering to a picked-over Walmart in Coral Cove, outside Fort Myers, would go fast.
“It's kind of like I'm the candy man wherever I show up,” he said. “Bread and water are always the first to go. Stand here for 15 minutes — all of this will be gone."
A state of emergency was declared earlier for all 67 Florida counties; on Wednesday, South Carolina followed suit, with Gov. Henry McMaster urging the public to not leave storm preparations to the last moment.
As he did while Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas late last month, Trump unleashed tweets about the storm’s strength. “Hurricane looks like the largest ever recorded in the Atlantic!” he wrote Wednesday morning on Twitter.
The president also said his “team” was ready in Florida, adding: “No rest for the weary!” Later, heading into a meeting with congressional leaders, he described the storm as “something that could be not good — believe me, not good.”
The National Hurricane Center said the storm was one of the five most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in the last 80 years and the strongest Atlantic storm on record outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
Satellite imagery of the enormous storm inspired fear and awe. The hurricane center in Miami described a vast swirling mass, with hurricane-force winds extending 50 miles from the storm’s center.
The hurricane’s force was such that it was detected by earthquake-measuring equipment on islands it passed, said Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at Britain’s University of Southampton.
Before dawn Wednesday, the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda was pummeled by wind and rain as the Category 5 storm passed almost directly above the islands, tearing off roofs, uprooting trees and triggering floods. Many people sought safety in government shelters as the winds turned storm-borne debris into missiles.
After overflying Barbuda, a grim-faced Prime Minister Gaston Browne reported late Wednesday that the island was “barely habitable” with about 95% of the properties damaged or destroyed.
“What I saw was heart-wrenching. I mean, absolutely devastating. In fact, I believe that on a per-capita basis, the extent of the destruction on Barbuda is unprecedented,” he told ABS TV in Antigua.
“Hurricane Irma would have been easily the most powerful hurricane to have stormed through the Caribbean, and unfortunately Barbuda was in its path,” he said.
Irma also roared through the French island territories of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, battering them with wind and water that smashed buildings and toppled trees. It was there that two deaths were reported by the French overseas territories minister, Annick Girardin. She also said two people were seriously injured.
Dutch authorities were keeping an anxious eye on St. Maarten, Netherlands territory that shares an island with St. Martin, after the storm disrupted communications and caused heavy damage.
In the early afternoon, the eye passed over the British Virgin Islands with winds gusting at 110 mph, the National Hurricane Center reported. Celebrity tycoon Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, owns a small private island in the chain, and blogged beforehand that he and a group of friends would be seeking shelter in a concrete wine cellar.
Six southern islands in the Bahamas were under evacuation orders, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said, with people being flown to the capital, Nassau.
In Puerto Rico, lashed by the storm’s leading edge, people hunkered down as the hurricane menaced the U.S. territory, with the height of winds and rain expected later Wednesday. Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the storm’s danger was “like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
As the hurricane closed in, the world’s second largest radio telescope, at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, suspended operations, its operators announced on Twitter.
With Puerto Rico’s infrastructure already tottering, islanders were bracing for a loss of power that could last for weeks or even months. Floodwaters swept into some areas and at least 600,000 were without power, but by Wednesday evening, there were signs the powerful storm was veering northwest.
“The great danger of a Category 5 storm has passed,” Jose Santiago, 66, owner of a clothing and home goods store in San Lorenzo, about 25 miles south of San Juan, said in a telephone interview. Still, he said, most of the island was facing heavy rain and 50- to 60-mph winds.
Diego Hernandez, 64, an artist living in San Juan, said he lost power late Wednesday afternoon, but otherwise felt the island had been given a pass — especially in comparison with the recent devastation in Texas wrought by Harvey. “What happened in Texas is overwhelming,” he said. “We are lucky here.”
In the low-lying Florida Keys, where many people are accustomed to riding out hurricanes, mandatory evacuation orders were in effect for visitors and were extended to residents for later Wednesday — a complicated undertaking that was to include airlifting hospital patients.
Tourist idylls came to an abrupt halt as hotels shut down and the Key West airport was stopping operations Wednesday, later pushed back to Thursday so more flights could depart. Residents, with a few more hours’ grace to get out, boarded up homes and businesses, and secured their boats.
There’s only one highway to the mainland — U.S. Route 1 — and it was choked with traffic. Gasoline became harder to find. The governor said that by Wednesday afternoon, about 25,000 people had fled the Florida Keys.
Martin Senterfitt, the top disaster management specialist for Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, said that unlike in previous hurricanes, authorities weren’t encountering many recalcitrant holdouts against evacuating.
“I think the general consensus across the state is that this is a big event,” he said.
With the storm bearing down, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was getting ready to shut down two Florida nuclear plants that could be in the hurricane’s path: the Turkey Point plant south of Miami, and the St. Lucie plant on the state’s east coast.
In Miami-Dade County, authorities urged people to stock up on enough food and water to last three days, and encouraged people in low-lying areas to leave voluntarily. Schools were closed.
Storm monitors reached back nearly a century to provide comparisons, with the weather service likening Irma’s destructive power to that of Hurricane San Felipe, which killed nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, Florida and the island of Guadeloupe in 1928.
Neuhaus is a special correspondent. Staff writer Laura King reported from Washington. Special correspondent Marc Olson contributed from Los Angeles.
8:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details of damage on Barbuda.
6:40 p.m.: This article was updated with interviews from two residents in Puerto Rico.
4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with reports of two more deaths in the Caribbean.
2:00 p.m.: This article was updated with French officials reporting two deaths in St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, a new comment from the Florida governor, store shelves picked clean, Florida preparing to close down two nuclear plants, radio telescope in Puerto Rico shut.
11:45 a.m.: This article was updated with new information including a state of emergency declared in South Carolina, details about Florida Keys evacuation and landfall in the British Virgin Islands.
9:45 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.
4:31 a.m.: This article was updated with Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s tweet about additional evacuation orders.
2:10 a.m. Sept. 6: This article was updated with reporting throughout.
This article was originally published 11:25 p.m. Sept. 5