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Hurricane Irma has devastated the islands of Turks and Caicos as it continued its destructive journey across the Caribbean towards Florida, flattening buildings and killing at least 14 people.
The category 5 storm, the largest ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean, made landfall on the British overseas territory, as well as Haiti, overnight on Thursday, with catastrophic damage reported.
Areas of Haiti are severely flooded, with the country still recovering from a huge hurricane last year and a deadly earthquake in 2010, which destroyed parts of the country.
Thousands of people are believed to have been made homeless by the storm in the past few days, with Puerto Rico, Barbuda and the Dominican Republic having already been hit.
Hurricane Irma is expected to journey past eastern Cuba today before heading to the US state of Florida on Saturday, where a state of emergency has been declared and evacuations are in place.
It comes as French, British and Dutch military authorities rushed to the aid of the devastated Caribbean islands on Thursday, with the UK pledging £32m to victims of the storm.
At least 11 people are known to have died, though the number is expected to rise.
A second category three storm – Hurricane Jose – is also hurtling across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean, sparking fears the devastation will only worsen in the coming weeks.
Warships and planes have been were dispatched with food, water and troops after the fearsome Category 5 storm smashed homes, schools and roads, laying waste to some of the world’s most beautiful and exclusive tourist destinations.
Forecasters are warning that Irma could slam headlong into the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, punish the entire length of the state’s Atlantic coast and move into Georgia and South Carolina.
More than a half-million people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to leave as Irma closed in with winds of 165 mph.
“Take it seriously, because this is the real deal,” said Maj. Jeremy DeHart, a U.S. Air Force Reserve weather officer who flew through the eye of Irma at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters).
The first islands hit by the storm were scenes of terrible destruction.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said four people were confirmed dead and about 50 injured on the French side of St. Martin, an island split between Dutch and French control, where homes were splintered and road signs scattered by the fierce winds.
Florida Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine warned residents: “This is a nuclear hurricane. They must leave the beach.”
The cafes and clothing shops of the picturesque seaside village of Marigot were submerged in brown floodwaters. The toll could rise because rescue teams had yet to get a complete look at the damage.
The U.S. Consulate General in Curaçao said it believes about 6,000 Americans are stranded on St. Martin and is collecting their names and locations.
It said it was working with the U.S. and other governments to try to figure out how to get the Americans off the island either by air or boat.
At least four people were killed in the US Virgin Islands, and officials said they expected to find more bodies. Authorities described the damage as catastrophic and said crews were struggling to reopen roads and restore power.
Three more deaths were reported on the British island of Anguilla, as well as Barbuda and the Dutch side of St. Martin.
Irma also slammed the French island of St Barts, tearing off roofs and knocking out electricity in the high-end tourist destination.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said 100,000 food rations were sent to St. Barts and St. Martin, the equivalent of four days of supplies.
“It’s a tragedy. We’ll need to rebuild both islands,” he said. “Most of the schools have been destroyed.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the storm “caused wide-scale destruction of infrastructure, houses and businesses.”
He said: “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.”
The hurricane was still north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday evening, sweeping the neighboring nations on Hispaniola island with high winds and rain while battering the Turks and Caicos islands on its other side.
Big waves smashed a dozen homes into rubble in the Dominican fishing community of Nagua, but work crews said all the residents had left before the storm.
Officials said 11,200 people in all had evacuated vulnerable areas, while 55,000 soldiers had been deployed to help the clean-up.
In Haiti, two people were injured by a falling tree, a national roadway was blocked by debris and roofs were torn from houses along the northern coast but there were no immediate reports of deaths.
Officials warned that could change as Irma continued to lash Haiti, where deforested hillsides are prone to devastating mudslides that have wiped out entire neighborhoods of precariously built homes in flood zones.
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