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.”
“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.
Trailer homes at the Sea Breeze trailer park in the Florida Keys town of Islamorada were destroyed by Irma.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Ross inspects the damage to his three-story condominium building in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of a boat in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Brooke Gilbert, 15, and her father, Mike Gilbert, look at the ruins of her grandparents’ condominium building in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Laura Gilbert retrieves the mailbox from her father’s condominium in Islamorada after it was swept away during the storm.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Sand and debris block access to trailer homes in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Greg Garner embraces neighbor Linda Nettles in front of his longtime family home that lost part of its roof after Tropical Storm Irma hit Sullivan’s Island, S.C.(Mic Smith / Associated Press)
Overturned trailer homes Sept. 11 in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma over the Florida Keys.(Matt McClain / Pool Photo)
The aftermath of Hurricane Irma is seen from the air Sept. 11 over the Florida Keys.(Matt McClain / Pool Photo)
The aftermath of Hurricane Irma is seen from the air Sept. 11 over the Florida Keys.(Matt McClain / Pool Photo)
Israel Alvarado, 25, tries to open a gate blocked by fallen tree branches to retrieve a generator in Bonita Springs.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Rescue workers help a couple evacuate their flooded home in Jacksonville.(John Raoux / Associated Press)
Charlotte Glaze, left gives Donna Lamb a hug as she floats out some of her belongings in floodwaters in Jacksonville,.(Dede Smith / Associated Press)
Ron Colby, 70, leaves his flooded Bonita Springs home after staying during Hurricane Irma. He said he was OK with the wind but that at 3:30 in the morning the water started to rise.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A dresser floats by Gilberto Diaz in his Bonita Springs neighborhood. Originally from Guatemala, Diaz has lived in Florida since 1994.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In Bonita Springs, floodwaters reached waist deep in some areas on Monday, flooding homes and cars.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A block from the ocean in Naples, the water was still a foot deep from storm surge. Homeowner Terry Clontz put up a “no wake” sign because people were driving by too fast, pushing water farther onto his property.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Floodwaters surround a marina in Key Largo on Monday following Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Mobile homes in Key Largo, Fla., lie in ruins on Monday after Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Floodwaters surround Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo on Monday.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Kelly McClenthen returns to see the flood damage to her home with her boyfriend, Daniel Harrison, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Bonita Springs, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Terry Thompson is relieved. He rode out the storm in his home in Riverwood Estates in Naples. Although the Naples area of Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma, damage wasn’t nearly as bad as anticipated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A woman leaves her flooded home the morning after Hurricane Irma swept through the area in Fort Myers, Florida.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
People tend to a car that flipped over on Cape Coral Parkway during Hurricane Irma, in Cape Coral.(Gerald Herbert / AP)
A man clears the drain next to his house in Estero, Fla., during the lull in winds as the eye of the hurricane passes over.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Evacuees use flashlights so others can maneuver around the stairway at Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Guests gather in the lobby of Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla., to watch the hurricane gusts.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Darla Talia Ferro, 40, and her two parakeets ride out Hurricane Irma in the lobby of Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
John Krowzow, 74, wades in floodwater to check out his homes in Corkscrew Woodlands, a park with 640 senior mobile home units in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Peter Moodley wades through floodwater in downtown Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Two men walk through a downed tree as Hurricane Irma’s full force strikes Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A woman films the damage from a house whose roof was blown off near downtown Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A vehicle drives through debris caused by Hurricane Irma, in Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Weather reporters in downtown Miami jump and cling on to illustrate the force of the winds caused by Hurricane Irma.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Weather reporters do a stand-up as the force of the winds caused by Hurricane Irma hit Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A cargo truck is tipped over by the wind caused by Hurricane Irma in Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Storm surge floods the Brickell neighborhood of Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Streets are empty in downtown Miami as the wind picks up speed during Hurricane Irma’s approach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Maria Koenig, 63, of Estero, Fla., and her dog, Baeley, sit by the window at their Estero hotel so Maria can keep an eye on the storm on Sunday.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Glen Sinatra, 69, from Naples, says he feels lucky to be at a hotel in Estero instead of a shelter. He’s nervous about the storm and says he’s trying not to worry his children about the conditions.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jimmy Alfano, of Ft. Myers, holds onto Alec Hoskins who is autistic, while watching the storm gusts through the window of their Estero hotel with Frank Pairs.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A car sits abandoned in storm surge along North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard as Hurricane Irma hits the southern part of the state.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The metal canopy at a gasoline station is overturned by high winds brought on by Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Youssef Ezzou, left, and Fadel Beznbachir roam outside to check out the conditions in Miami as Hurricane Irma nears the mainland.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A construction crane whose arm broke off towers over a building as high wind blows through downtown Miami on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man and woman run to safety in Miami as winds from Hurricane Irma bear down on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Storefronts in Miami are damaged as Hurricane Irma’s winds hit Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Hurricane Irma arrives at the Boynton Beach inlet.(Jim Rassol / Sun Sentinel)
Dustin Terkoski, Palm Bay Police officer surveys the scene after a possible tornado touched down at Palm Pam Bay Estates.(Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)
A man braces against the wind by the Miami River on Sunday as water levels surge.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man stands by the Miami River as the water level surges on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The waves on the Miami River begin to surge Sunday as winds pick up speed upon Hurricane Irma’s approach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Brian Williams, of Maryland, fights the winds in downtown Fort Myers.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Trees fall as winds pick up speed early Sunday as Hurricane Irma approaches Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A TV reporter braces against the wind as Hurricane Irma approaches Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The outer bands of Hurricane Irma start to reach Florida on Saturday, with clouds over the Miami skyline.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images )
People wade through a flooded street in Havana after Hurricane Irma battered central Cuba.(YAMIL LAGE / AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands wait Saturday to enter a storm shelter set up at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., south of Fort Myers.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jean Turner, 79, waits to get into a shelter with a few of her belongings as rain begins to fall Saturday in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Sherri Bourdo, 32, and Anthony Guidry, 40, look out over the water in Naples, Fla, in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Lisette Toroella and Tatiana Morera play on the beach as storm clouds approach in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Adam Todd, does a handstand while skateboarding down a virtually empty Ocean Drive in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Abby Jenkins walks against the wind with her luggage and umbrella to get to safety, in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
James Sampero surfs in the churning ocean as Hurricane Irma approaches.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Cubans wade through the rubble from a collapsed building in Havana on Saturday.(Yamil Lage / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman and child use a blanket as protection from wind and rain as they walk in Caibarien, Cuba. Hurricane Irma battered Cuba on Saturday with deafening winds and unremitting rain, pushing seawater inland and flooding homes before turning toward Florida.(Desmond Boylan / Associated Press)
Annette Davis plays with her son Darius, 3, while staying at a shelter in Miami on Saturday after evacuating from their home in Florida City ahead of Hurricane Irma.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Residents walk through rain brought on by Hurricane Irma in Caibarien, Cuba. The powerful storm battered Cuba on Saturday and continued its march toward Florida.(Desmond Boylan / Associated Press)
Palmetto Ridge High School is a shelter for people with special needs near Naples, Fla. Many seniors plan to ride out the storm there.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Francesca DeLuca, age 20, will be waiting for 10 hours for her flight back to Milan, Italy. She had been visiting a friend in Miami by herself, but the area where she was staying is under mandatory evacuation. At Miami International Airport, the last flights will be this afternoon with the airport closing tonight at 6pm. Most travelers are taking flights to anywhere they can find.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Boats that can’t be evacuated are tied off in canals to protect them from Hurricane Irma on in Key Largo, Florida. The entire Florida Keys are under a mandatory evacuation notice as Hurricane Irma approaches the low-lying chain of islands south of Miami.(Marc Serota / Getty Images)
Hundreds wait in line on Friday at Home Depot in Miami to get supplies line sheets of plywood, and anything else they can find, to board up their homes. Police were on the scene to keep things orderly.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A Royal Logistics Corps Mexeflote approaches Sandy Bay Village beach in Anguilla loaded with British army trucks, multiterrain vehicles, generators and other equipment on Friday. French, British and Dutch military authorities rushed aid to a devastated string of Caribbean islands Thursday after Hurricane Irma left at least 11 people dead and thousands homeless.(Royal Navy )
In the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Fritz Drinks, whose family is from Haiti, helps load sandbags at Little Haiti Hardware and Lumber. Many people in the area are refusing to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In downtowm Miaimi, people wait to get on a bus headed to Orlando under a mandatory evacution plan. Preparations are underway for Hurricane Irma as the storm makes its way toward Florida.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Stores are boarded up in Miami Beach in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Preparations for Hurricane Irma are underway in Miami Beach as the storm makes its way toward Florida.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Genaro Dacosta, 65, of Miami Beach loads sandbags in advance of Hurricane Irma. He says he can’t evacuate the area because he has a monkey.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An aerial photograph taken and released by the Dutch Department of Defense on Wednesday shows damage from Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, St. Maarten.(Gerben van Es / AFP/Getty Images)
Juan Negron, third from left, prepares to start up a power generator in front of what’s left of his damaged property in Culebra, Puerto Rico, after the passage of Hurricane Irma.(Carlos Giusti / Associated Press)
Residents come out to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in Nagua, Dominican Republic.(Tatiana Fernandez / Associated Press)
People on Thursday look over damage from Hurricane Irma on a sand-covered street of Marigot, near the Bay of Nettle, on the island of St. Maarten.(Lionel Chamoiseau / AFP/Getty Images)
Inmate trustees from the Brevard County Jail fill sandbags for Meritt Island, Fla., residents in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Brian Blanco / Getty Images)
Motorists leave Key Largo, Fla., ahead of Hurricane Irma.(Alan Diaz / Associated Press)
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