ST. JOHN’S, Antigua (CBSNewYork/AP) — With growing ferocity, Hurricane Irma carved a path of destruction through the Caribbean on Wednesday. Its 185-mph winds shaking homes and flooding buildings on a chain of small islands along a path toward Puerto Rico, Cuba and Hispaniola.
Now, the storm is setting its sights on Florida.
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded passed almost directly over the island of Barbuda, causing widespread flooding and downing trees. France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity.
The regional authority for Guadeloupe and neighboring islands said the fire station in Saint Barthelemy was flooded by more than 3 feet of water and no rescue vehicles could move. The government headquarters on Saint Martin was partially destroyed.
There were no immediate reports of casualties but the minister for French overseas territories, Annick Girardin, said “We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn’t want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites.
“We’re preparing for the worst,” Girardin said.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said the twin-island nation appears to have weathered its brush with Hurricane Irma with no deaths, though he noted that the government had only done a preliminary assessment of Barbuda. There were widespread reports of property damage but he says the public and government had prepared well for the storm.
“We in Antigua have weathered the most powerful hurricane ever to storm its way through the Caribbean,” the prime minister said. “And we have done so with stunning results.”
Irma had maximum winds of 185 mph as of 11 a.m. Wednesday and was producing dangerous storm surge and heavy rain. The center of the storm was about 65 miles east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and about 140 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was heading west-northwest at 16 mph.
As the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 2 a.m., phone lines went down under heavy rain and howling winds that sent debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.
The storm ripped the roof off the island’s police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma’s winds would fluctuate but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two. The most dangerous winds, usually nearest to the eye, were forecast to pass near the northern Virgin Islands and near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.
On Twitter Wednesday morning, Trump said: “Watching Hurricane closely. My team, which has done, and is doing, such a good job in Texas, is already in Florida. No rest for the weary!”
Four other storms have had winds as strong in the overall Atlantic region but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which are usually home to warmer waters that fuel cyclones. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005’s Wilma, 1988’s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Keys storm all had 185 mph winds.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating six islands in the south because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the “potentially catastrophic” wind, flooding and storm surge. People there would be flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country’s history.
“The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm,” Minnis said.
The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
“The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “A lot of infrastructure won’t be able to withstand this kind of force.”
The eye of the storm was expected to rip westward on a path taking it a little north of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.
The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, with as much as 20 inches (50 centimeters) in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
People in the British Virgin Islands tried to ride out the storm, while an oceanfront hotel in Saint Maarten was completely flooded out this morning. Another was left completely destroyed by the intense wind and rain.
People inside, who had been using it as a shelter, barely had time to evacuate.
This, as the storm seemed almost certain to hit the United States by early next week.
“You’d be hard pressed to find any model that doesn’t have some impact on Florida.” said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
In Florida, people stocked up on drinking water and other supplies, and as CBS2’s Jessica Moore reported, the question a lot of residents were asking was ‘should I stay or should I go?’
In southeast Florida, where the power is expected to go out, the line for propane gas to fill back up generators stretched around gas stations and all around the state, shoppers have cleared out every shelf in grocery stores.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 National Guard members were to report for duty Friday when the storm could be approaching the area.
On Wednesday, he told residents of the Florida Keys that “we’re doing everything to get fuel to you as quickly as possible.” Tourists are under a mandatory evacuation order, which began Wednesday morning.
Residents will then be ordered to evacuate, but many gas stations across southern Florida are experiencing shortages. Scott said, “we will get you out.” But he’s urging people to move quickly if they plan on evacuating, calling Irma a “life-threatening storm.”
“Do not sit and wait for this storm to come,” Scott said. “Get out now.”
Scott also warned people to prepare for a worst case scenario when the storm hits the U.S. mainland on Sunday.
“I cannot stress this enough, do not ignore evacuation orders,” he said. “Remember, we can rebuild your home, we cannot rebuild your life.”
As CBS2’s Kenneth Craig reported, Tampa’s mayor was more blunt.
“This ain’t Indiana. This is serious stuff and you will die,” Bob Buckhorn said.
It seemed like people had been listening. Through much of the day, traffic on state highways was bumper to bumper.
Gas station lines were long and grocery store shelves were emptied.
The mayor of Miami-Dade county has said people should also be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county’s coastal areas.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days’ worth of food and water.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles from Irma’s center and tropical storm-force winds extended 175 miles.
The time to fly out of Florida is dwindling. The Key West International Airport will close Wednesday night and local reports say last-minute flights out of Miami have skyrocketed to $2,000.
People from across Florida flooded into LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday, desperate to escape Irma’s path of destruction, but getting there wasn’t easy.
“It was scary because you’d find a flight and then it would be gone. You’d put your name in and someone else would take it,” Sarah Quirk said.
“Everyone is panicking. All my friends are driving hours and hours to get out of there. People are boarding up their homes and parking their cars in garages. Everyone’s freaking out,” Emma Freeman said.
With the keys under a mandatory evacuation order, and many schools already closed, drivers were making a mad dash for the border.
“By the time we woke up in Miami on Tuesday, it was already a Category 5 and that’s when we realized there was absolutely no possibility of us staying in Miami,” Nicole Habina said.
Many evacuees said they’re angry the airlines are taking advantage of the situation in the sky as a chance to line their pockets.
“The prices were really crazy. We were lucky because she already had a flight, and we had to reschedule, but one way trips were like $1,000,” Bonni Freeman said.
Not everyone was convinced that they needed to leave, with some Floridians determined to ride out the storm.
“I hope I’m making the right decision. My husband has a doctor’s appointment in the morning and doesn’t want to miss it, so we’re here,” Ronnie Grossman said.
In East Harlem, Puerto Rican flags waved under gray skies and residents were in a hurry to get home.
“It’s a small island, and it gets hit hard so I hope they’re okay,” Eric Carrasquio told CBS2’s Dave Carlin.
Standing under an awning to escape the rain in Soundview, a woman born in Puerto Rico has a name that everyone is now repeating.
“The same name,” Irma Santiago said.
She moved to the U.S. 38 years ago, but her brother and two sisters are on the island.
She just learned they are sheltering in place at a relative’s home, on what is hopefully high enouhg ground.
“Waiting, no choice, they have to wait,” she said.
Meanwhile in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn where many have relatives in Irma’s path, Dennis Flores has put together a donation spot for clothes, food and books.
“Kids are supposed to be going to school now, so imagine the things that can be lost during this storm,” he told WCBS 880’s Mike Sugerman.
The donation center is at the offices of Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a Puerto Rican native.
“The wind is going to impact the whole island,” he said. “It’s a very small island.”
Another man said his family is set to fly to New York from the Dominican Republic to escape Irma’s fury.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb she’s alarmed at the powerful hurricane’s potential impact on all the people of the Caribbean Islands, but most personally about her mother, Elizabeth, on Puerto Rico.
“We’ve been talking, she’s prepped. I feel confident, you know at least where she’s at the structure of the house is cement, it’s sturdy. And she’s very prepared,” she said. “But the issue is obviously communication – how long is this going to last? I mean she already is without electricity — I obviously want to maintain communication with her — does that mean her phone’s going to go down?”
Viverito said her mother has promised to update the family once an hour. But if cell service goes down, she worries how long it might be until she hears from her again.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)