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The head of the US’s federal emergency agency has warned large swathes of America face devastation as Hurricane Irma hurtles towards Florida.
Parts of the state may be without power for days and up to 100,000 face being displaced, said FEMA chief Brock Long.
He insisted it was not a question of if Florida would be hit but how hard – and also urged other states in the US’s south-eastern region to be on alert no matter what.
“Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States, either Florida or the southeastern United States,” Mr Long said in a news conference on Friday.
“The entire south-eastern United States better wake up and pay attention.”
Around half a million people have been told to leave Florida with the storm set to make landfall on Sunday. Some six million people live in the Miami metropolitan area alone.
Mr Long’s comments came as the death toll rose to 19 after Hurricane Irma flattened much of the Caribbean.
Islands across the region – including British, French and Dutch territories – bore the brunt of Irma’s assault, with European military authorities racing to the Caribbean to provide urgently needed support.
Around 50,000 tourists have fled Cuba as the country prepares to become the next victim of Irma’s onslaught.
Beachside resorts are said to have been completely emptied as the communist nation awaits 165mph winds and lashings of heavy torrential rain.
On Friday morning, Irma was downgraded to a category 4 hurricane, but emergency chiefs did not soften their warnings.
People in Florida rushed to board up their homes, take their boats out of the water and gas up their cars. With gasoline running out and tensions rising, the Florida Highway Patrol escorted tanker trucks sent to replenish gas stations.
“It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” state governor Rick Scott said.
Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, said Irma could easily prove to be the costliest storm in US history.
The first islands hit by the storm were scenes of total destruction.
On St. Martin, an island split between the Dutch Sint Maarten and French St.-Martin, homes were splintered and road signs scattered by the fierce winds.
The cafes and clothing shops of the picturesque French seaside village of Marigot were submerged in brown floodwaters and people surveyed the wreckage from whatever shelter they could find. The toll could rise because rescue teams have yet to get a complete look at the damage.
Annick Girardin, minister for France’s overseas territories, said Friday that there had been “scenes of pillaging” of televisions as well as food and water on St. Martin.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the storm “caused wide-scale destruction of infrastructure, houses and businesses.”
He added: “There is no power, no gasoline, no running water. Houses are under water, cars are floating through the streets, inhabitants are sitting in the dark in ruined houses and are cut off from the outside world.”
Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose strengthened into a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds.
Many islands battered by Hurricane Irma, including St. Martin, St. Barts, and the Virgin Islands, face a second round of torment as early as Saturday.
London News & Search