Latest: Irma approaches US coast as tourists reveal hurricane was "like being in a nightmare"

Latest: Tourists returning from areas in the Caribbean which have been hit by Hurricane Irma have described the experience as "like being in a nightmare".

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British tourists Thanai Caesar and Rochelle Fyffe spoke of their fear, having been in Antigua when Irma struck.

They said the walls of their boarded-up accommodation shook and they could hear things banging against the building outside.

"I feel like the hurricane itself was like being in a nightmare and it was just horrible because the outcome wasn't actually as bad as on other islands, so I don't even want to imagine what the other people felt," Ms Fyffe told Sky News at Gatwick Airport.

"We couldn't sleep the whole night because we were just scared," Ms Caesar added.

Miroslava Roznovjakova, left, and her husband, Ray Hayyat, add some last minute pieces of plywood to their store in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, as Hurricane Irma approaches. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Shilan Ghafoor and Hari Jami, who had their honeymoon cut short, called for more help for locals braced for a second storm.

"To be honest it just makes you think because the people who are out there, they're so limited, they don't have enough resources, they don't have enough help and the hurricane has been three days now, four days, and now they're just picking up the pieces, they're anticipating another one," Mr Ghafoor told Sky News.

"I think a lot more should be done from us worldwide to help them out."

Hurricane Irma is now hurtling towards Florida with 125 mph winds on a new projected track that could put the Tampa area rather than Miami in the crosshairs.

The Tampa area has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane in nearly a century.

"You need to leave - not tonight, not in an hour, right now," Governor Rick Scott warned residents in the evacuation zones ahead of the storm's predicted arrival on Sunday morning.

For days, the forecast had made it look as if the Miami metropolitan area of six million people on Florida's Atlantic coast could get hit head-on with the catastrophic and long-dreaded Big One.

The westward swing in the hurricane's projected path overnight caught many on Florida's Gulf coast off guard.

By late Saturday morning, few businesses in St Petersburg and its barrier islands had put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals groused about the change in the forecast.

"For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we're now told it's coming up the west coast," said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St Petersburg.

"As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid."

Tampa has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Centre spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

Now the area has around three million people.

Forecasters warned of a storm surge as high as 15 feet along a swath of south-west Florida and beyond.

"This is going to sneak up on people," said Jamie Rhome, head of the hurricane centre's storm surge unit.

With the new forecast, Pinellas County, home to St Petersburg, ordered 260,000 people to leave, while Georgia scaled back evacuation orders for some coastal residents.

Irma has left more than 20 people dead in its wake across the Caribbean, ravaging such resort islands as St Martin, St Barts, St Thomas, Barbuda and Antigua.

The storm weakened slightly in the morning but was expected to pick up strength again before hitting the Sunshine State.

Meteorologists predicted its centre would blow ashore on Sunday in the perilously low-lying Florida Keys, then hit south-western Florida and move north, ploughing into the Tampa Bay area.

Though the centre is expected to miss Miami, the metro area will still get pounded with life-threatening hurricane winds, Mr Feltgen said.

On Saturday morning, the state was already beginning to feel Irma's muscle.

Nearly 30,000 people had lost power, mostly in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as the wind began gusting.

In Key West, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud sought refuge in a senior centre with her husband, granddaughter and dog.

The streets were nearly empty, shops were boarded up and the wind started to blow.

"Tonight, I'm sweating," she said. "Tonight, I'm scared to death."

In one of the biggest evacuations ever ordered in the US, about 6.4 million people in Florida - more than a quarter of the state's population - were warned to leave.

Petrol shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper.

Some 54,000 people crowded 320 shelters across Florida.

At Germain Arena not far from Fort Myers, on Florida's south-western corner, thousands waited in a snaking line for hours to gain a spot in the hockey venue-turned-shelter.

"We'll never get in," Jamilla Bartley lamented as she stood in the parking lot.

The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.

Major tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, all prepared to close on Saturday.

The Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports shut down, and those in Orlando and Tampa planned to do the same later in the day.

With winds that peaked at 185 mph, Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.

Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, it could still prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen in the area in 25 years.

Cuba

Earlier in the day Irma battered Cuba with deafening winds and relentless rain today while a second hurricane threatened to lash already-reeling islands elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Cuban coastal cities were clobbered by high winds from Irma that upended trees, toppled utility poles and scattered debris across streets.

Roads were blocked and witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Cuba in addition to the 22 dead left in Irma's wake across the Caribbean, where the storm ravaged such lush resort islands as St Martin, St Barts, St Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

Many of Irma's victims fled their battered islands on ferries and fishing boats for fear the second hurricane, Jose, would destroy or drench anything Irma left untouched.

On the Dutch side of St Martin, an island divided between French and Dutch control, an estimated 70% of the homes were destroyed by Irma, according to the Dutch government.

Officials said Jose was forecast to dump more rain on the island's buildings, many of which lost their roofs to Irma.

As Irma rolled in, Cuban soldiers went through coastal towns to force people to evacuate, taking people to shelters at government buildings and schools - and even caves.

Video images from northern and eastern Cuba showed uprooted utility poles and signs, many downed trees and extensive damage to roofs.

Eastern Cuba, home to the island's poor, rural population and a major sugarcane-growing area, faces a difficult recovery, with its economy in tatters even before the storm because of years of neglect and lack of investment.

Civil Defence official Gergorio Torres said authorities were trying to tally the extent of the damage, which appeared concentrated in banana-growing areas.

Looting was reported on St Martin. Curfews were imposed there and on St Barts, and French and Dutch authorities announced plans to send hundreds more troops and police to keep order.

It was not immediately known whether US President Donald Trump's luxury property on St Martin had been damaged.

On Anguilla, Vanessa Croft Thompson crammed into her home's laundry room with her husband, her best friend and their children along with their cats and dogs, as Irma's floodwaters swamped her house.

The storm peeled off her roof, rained water inside, and sheared paint from her walls.

"Our hurricane-proof door was bending in, it was warping... and the entire house was shaking like it was an earthquake," she said.

Ms Thompson, the head of the English department at Anguilla's only high school, said: "I don't even know something that's not destroyed.

"There's nothing here that hasn't been ripped apart by Irma."

Update 7pm: Hurricane Irma has battered central Cuba, knocking down power lines and damaging properties - after already devastating parts of the Caribbean this week.

It's now been downgraded to a Category 3 storm - but forecasters expect it to strengthen again as it heads towards Florida - where evacuation orders for up to 6m residents are in place.

The US state's governor Rick Scott issued this stark warning.

"This is a life threatening situation. If you have been ordered to evacuate you need to go right now."

Residents and tourists in the path of the historic storm - estimated to be the size of France - are being warned the "situation could deteriorate significantly" as it bears down on the US mainland.

Having regained its category five status overnight the hurricane has weakened to category three as it batters the north coast of Cuba.

But it is expected to regain its strength before hitting the Florida Keys on Sunday morning with 110 mph winds.

More than six million people in Florida and Georgia have been warned to leave their homes as the National Hurricane Centre warned the storm will bring "life-threatening" wind, with forecasters predicting storm surges of up to 15 ft.

Update 4.22pm: It is likely that the eye of powerful Hurricane Irma will strike the Keys, south-western Florida and Tampa Bay region, the National Hurricane Centre said.

While the core of the massive storm is expected to miss the populated Florida south-east coast, forecasters say the Miami region will still experience life-threatening hurricane conditions.

Its winds weakened to 130 mph when it hit Cuba, but Irma is forecast to regain strength over the ultra-warm Florida Straits and hit western Florida as a strong category four storm.

The storm is likely to come ashore on Sunday.

Hurricane centre spokesman Dennis Feltgen said a direct hit into the Tampa region, which has not felt a major hurricane since 1921, has long been a concern.

Update 2pm: The window for Florida residents to safely evacuate narrowed Saturday as Hurricane Irma's outer bands blew into the southern part of the state.

The hurricane was on a predicted path for landfall southwest of the heavily populated Miami metro area.

The enormous storm weakened slightly to category four with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph, but it was expected to pick up strength again as it takes aim at Florida.

The storm was forecast to reach the Florida Keys on Sunday morning before moving up the state's Gulf Coast.

The National Weather Service said damaging winds were moving into areas including Key Biscayne and Coral Gables on Saturday, while gusts of up to 56 mph were reported on Virginia Key off Miami.

In one of the country's largest evacuations, about 5.6 million people in Florida - more than one-quarter of the state's population - were ordered to leave, and another 540,000 were ordered out on the Georgia coast.

Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.

Update 1.50pm: Hurricane Irma has regained its category five status after data showed its windspeeds had risen as it tears past Cuba.

Officials in the Sunshine State warned "time is running out" to escape danger areas, calling on anyone remaining there to follow the mandatory evacuation orders.

The low-lying Florida Keys will be struck first when Irma arrives on Sunday and authorities are reportedly considering withdrawing emergency teams from the islands.

Meanwhile the last flights from major airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale left on Friday evening and the last services from Orlando and Tampa international airports will be on Saturday evening.

Among those hoping to be on one of the remaining departures was Cathy Robson, the mother of British tennis star Laura Robson.

She tweeted to British Airways: "Is TPA (Tampa) to LGW (Gatwick) still on tmrw?? Cant get through on the phone. My mum's been evacuated & planning on staying by the airport."

The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) has forecast Irma will reach the Keys and southern Florida on Sunday morning, bringing devastating winds, rain and storm surges up to 12ft high.

Hopes the storm had weakened were dashed when an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft found sustained windspeeds had increased to nearly 160mph, with gusts higher still.

Forecasters had further dire news for some of the Caribbean islands reeling in Irma's wake as data suggested Hurricane Jose was "almost a category five" with sustained winds up to 155mph.

Jose is expected to come close to the devastated northern Leeward Islands on Saturday.

The NHC has issued hurricane warnings for the Commonwealth islands of Barbuda and Antigua and British territory of Anguilla, while t he British Virgin Islands are on tropical storm watch.

Irma claimed at least 20 lives and left thousands of people homeless when it smashed into the region on Wednesday.

Five of the 22 people reported to have died during Irma are said to have come from the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla.

Earlier: Newly-strengthened Hurricane Irma is heading towards south Florida with 160 mph winds after battering Cuba early todday and leaving more than 20 dead across the Caribbean.

Irma regained category five status last night as thousands of people in the Caribbean fought desperately to find shelter or escape their storm-blasted islands and more than six million people in Florida and Georgia were warned to leave their homes.

Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the eastern part of Cuba reported no major casualties or damage by mid-afternoon yesterday after Irma rolled north of the Caribbean's biggest islands.

Many residents and tourists were left reeling after the storm ravaged some of the world's most exclusive tropical playgrounds, known for their turquoise waters and lush green vegetation, among them St Martin, St Barts, St Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

Irma smashed homes, shops, roads and schools, knocked out power, water and telephone service, trapped thousands of tourists and stripped trees of their leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted landscape littered with sheet metal and splintered timber.

Yesterday, looting and gunshots were reported on St Martin, and a curfew was imposed in the US Virgin Islands.

Many of Irma's victims fled their islands on ferries and fishing boats for fear of Hurricane Jose, a category four storm with 150 mph winds that could punish some places all over again this weekend.

"I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to know that further damage is imminent," said Inspector Frankie Thomas of the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda.

On Barbuda, a coral island rising a mere 125 feet above sea level, authorities ordered an evacuation of all 1,400 people to neighbouring Antigua.

The dead included 11 on St Martin and St Barts, four in the US Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda.

Also, a 16-year-old junior professional surfer drowned Tuesday in Barbados while surfing large swells generated by an approaching Irma.

Many victims picked through the rubble of what had once been Caribbean dream getaway homes.

On St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, power lines and towers were toppled, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged and the harbour was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.

Opera singer Laura Strickling and her husband, Taylor, moved to St Thomas three years ago from Washington so he could take a job as a lawyer. They rented a top-floor apartment with a stunning view of the turquoise water of Megan's Bay.

Ms Strickling huddled with her husband and their year-old daughter in a basement apartment along with another family as the storm raged for 12 hours.

"The noise was just deafening. It was so loud we thought the roof was gone," she said, adding that she and the three other adults "were terrified but keeping it together for the babies".

Ms Strickling, who used to visit her husband in Afghanistan when he worked there, added: "I've had to sit through a Taliban gunfight, and this was scarier."

When they emerged, they found their apartment was unscathed and the trees had no leaves.

Irma threatened to push its way northward from one end of Florida to the other, beginning Sunday morning, in what many fear could be the long-dreaded, catastrophic Big One.

Evacuees clogged roads across Florida and Georgia, as far north as Atlanta.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles to the east, authorities commandeered a ferry from Montserrat with room for 350 and began moving people from Barbuda to the larger island of Antigua.

The owners of several fishing boats also volunteered to help.

Frankie Thomas said few structures were left standing in Barbuda, and even those that were not destroyed had some damage.

On St Martin, which is divided between Dutch and French control, cafes and shops were swamped, and the storm left gnarled black branches denuded of leaves.

Battered cars, corrugated metal, plywood, wrought iron and other debris covered street after street. Roofs were torn off numerous houses.

Little was left of St Martin's Hotel Mercure but its sign, painted on a still-standing wall.

William Marlin, prime minister of the Dutch side of St Martin, said recovery was expected to take months even before Jose threatened to make things worse.

"We've lost many, many homes. Schools have been destroyed," he said. "We foresee a loss of the tourist season because of the damage that was done to hotel properties, the negative publicity that one would have that it's better to go somewhere else because it's destroyed. So that will have a serious impact on our economy."

Jalon Shortte said riding out Irma in his top-floor apartment on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, was the scariest thing he has ever been through.

The air pressure hurt his ears, trees fell on his roof, windows blew out and a door came off, he wrote on Facebook. The storm even took paint off the walls, he said.

His Facebook page was filled with images he took from around Tortola of sunken yachts, crushed vehicles and mounds of debris. He said looting was rampant.

Amid the devastation, Mr Shortte worked to bring a water desalination plant online.

"We have to stick together and rebuild," he said.


 

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