More than 5 million people were told to leave their homes before 'nuclear hurricane' makes landfall on Sunday
Mass evacuations in Florida as Hurricane Irma approaches
Hurricane Irma sparked the greatest mass evacuation in Florida's history as it closed in on the state on Saturday.
Surging seas and driving rain sent hundreds of thousands of people into concrete shelters and millions more on to the highways to outrun the devastation.
Several counties issued curfews as emergency services braced for one of the fiercest storms ever to hit Florida.
Irma’s 250kph winds have left a trail of damage through the Caribbean, flattening homes and killing more than 20 people.
There was some good news at the eleventh hour for Florida, however. Meteorological models on Saturday suggested the path of the storm had drifted to the west, protecting the big eastern cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, home to more than seven million people, from the worst of its fury.
But the advice remained the same. Those in evacuation zones were told to get to safety while they still could.
Rick Scott, governor of Florida, said: “Once the storm starts law enforcement cannot save you….
“Do not put your life or your family’s life at risk.”
Philip Levine, mayor of Miami Beach, kept it simple as he addressed residents and visitors.
“I beg them please leave Miami Beach; you don’t want to be here.
“This hurricane is a nuclear hurricane,” he said. “It has so much power.”
Irma’s winds have reached sustained speeds of more than 250kph, enough to bring down power lines and scatter trees like kindling. Tornado warnings were issued in some areas on Saturday.
As much as 50 centimetres of rain is forecast in some areas.
But the greatest danger lies in the seas all around Florida’s narrow peninsula. Even if the eye of the storm tracks along the state’s west coast, as the models suggest, Irma’s breadth means no one will escape the deadly effects of its outer bands.
The worst-case scenario would see the storm coinciding not just a normal high tide but with a “king tide”. That could mean storm surges of as much as three and a half metres.
As a result more than 5.6 million people – or a quarter of the Florida's population - have been told to evacuate their homes before Irma was due to thunder ashore in the early hours of Sunday morning.
The hurricane struck Cuba's north-east coast as a category five storm on Saturday, ripping roofs from buildings and blacking out thousands of homes.
It was the latest Caribbean nation to feel Irma’s wrath.
Elsewhere, authorities began to pick through the damage and count the dead.
Gerard Collomb, the French interior minister, said nine people were dead and seven missing in the French territory on St Martin.
A second death was also confirmed in the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten.
Meteorologists said the storm had since weakened over Cuba but that it remained a category four hurricane with sustained winds of 215 kph. The US National Hurricane Centre in Miami said they expected it to strengthen again before it reached Florida.
That could make Irma a more terrifying hurricane than Andrew, which killed 65 people and destroyed more than 63,000 homes in 1992.
Petrol stations began reporting shortages on Wednesday as the great getaway began. And airlines and airports scrambled to get thousands of people to safety before closing early on Friday evening.
Authorities warned travellers that car parks at Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports were all filled to capacity.
Arriving flights were less than half-full and carried relatives worried about aged parents.
Among them was Ralph Bussola, on one of the last flights from New York to Fort Lauderdale, who was planning to take his 90-year-old mother and 92-year-old father to a hotel to ride out the storm,
“What’s worrying me is the storm surge,” he said. “They are at about nine foot of elevation but if there’s a 20-foot surge what am I going to do? I can’t put them on the roof.”
Up and down the coast, windows have been boarded and drinking water hoarded. Not even Donald Trump’s empire escaped.
Workers at his Mar-a-Lago club, the Florida resort he nicknamed "The Winter White House", spent Friday putting wooden storm shutters and blocking the front gate with traffic cones.
As winds picked up, the long beach near the resort was mostly empty, except for a couple of brave kite surfers making the most of the conditions.
The surrounding town of Palm Beach, a slender barrier island known as the playground of the super-rich, is under a mandatory evacuation.
The Florida Power and Light Company estimated that as many as nine million people could lose electricity.
Yet many people in exclusion zones said they were staying put.
Suzi Liebenberg, who said she had lost count of the hurricanes she had endured since Andrew, admitted the early warnings suggested Irma would be among the most severe.
Her home is close to Dania Beach outside Fort Lauderdale, where heavy winds have battered the shore’s palm trees for the past 48 hours.
Local wisdom, she explained, had it that new homes - built to advanced standards after the damage of Andrew – or an older home, which had weathered previous storms, offered the best protection.
She joined friends for a cold beer at Beach Betty’s which had boarded up its windows but stayed open as the storm moved closer. Her preparations, she said, were complete. Now it was time to wait for Irma to do her worst.
“You fill your car up with gas, get your drinking water and then there is nothing much more you can do,” she said.