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Hurricane Irma tears through the Caribbean, leaving devastation in its wake

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm with winds of up to 175 mph, continued to tear through the Caribbean on Thursday, leaving devastation in its wake and prompting evacuation orders across the region.

The death toll was at least seven Thursday afternoon, and authorities warned that the number could rise as communications improved.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe of France said that four people were confirmed dead on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, lowering a previous toll of eight deaths given by local rescue officials.

A St. Martin official said on Wednesday night that “95 percent of the island is destroyed.”

About 70 percent of Puerto Rico households were without power Thursday, though the territory appeared to be largely unscathed, the governor said. It was the latest blow for a territory mired in bankruptcy and debt that have left public works like power plants and retaining walls in poor shape.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded, was between Hispaniola and Turks and Caicos Islands on Thursday afternoon, though its winds had weakened slightly. A hurricane watch was issued for South Florida, the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Don Paul: Irma's threat to Caribbean and Florida continues to grow

Gov. Rick Scott of Florida urged residents to heed the advice of local officials in preparing for a powerful storm that could quickly change its course. “Every Florida family must prepare to evacuate regardless of the coast you live on,” he said at a news conference.

In Puerto Rico, about 70 percent of households were without power in the wake of the storm, which otherwise left the island largely unscathed, Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Thursday.

Roughly 40 percent of the territory’s hospitals were functioning, he said, and were accepting transfers of about 40 patients from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Power outages have left about 17 percent of the territory without running water.

“We would like to start out thanking the Almighty,” Rossello said of the relatively small impact the storm had on Puerto Rico, with fallen trees and electrical poles making up the bulk of the damage on the main island. “Our prayers were answered.”

Total rainfall on the island ranged from 2 to 8 inches, the governor said, but southern regions are still at risk of flooding because the rain there had not stopped.

A national shutdown was declared on the Turks and Caicos Islands on Thursday afternoon, halting emergency services as the storm passed.

“All residents and tourists are instructed to stay indoors, as responders will not be able to provide relief services during this time until further notice,” said Virginia Clerveaux, the director of the Disaster Management Department.

The few supermarkets in the city of Providenciales were crammed with residents stocking up on food, and there were long lines at gas stations.

The Haitian government called for all institutions, public and private, including banks and stores, to be shut down from noon Thursday until further notice.

President Jovenel Moise said in a televised speech that his Cabinet had spent a week preparing for the hurricane, but he also outlined the challenges ahead, noting that 77 percent of the country was mountainous, much of it inaccessible by road.

He urged people to heed the hurricane warnings and get to a safe place. “The hurricane is not a game,” he said.

All schools in the country were closed Wednesday and Thursday, and the more than 800 temporary shelters set up across the country have started providing food to people affected by the storm.

Police were working with local officials to evacuate people from the most vulnerable areas along the northern coast, “by force if necessary,” Interior Minister Max Rudolph Saint-Albin said at a news conference Thursday.

The concern was not just about possible drownings and injuries from the storm, but also that a surge of cholera could follow, as happened last year after Hurricane Matthew devastated the country’s southwest.

The Minister of Public Health, speaking on national television and radio, urged people to add bleach to their drinking and bathing water and to put together first-aid kits at home.

Irma’s 185 mph wind speeds persisted for more than 24 hours, the longest period ever recorded. The French weather service described it as the most enduring superstorm on record.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda said that half of Barbuda had been left homeless from the storm. Officials declared a state of emergency there Thursday.

In the Dominican Republic, officials evacuated some areas near the beachfront town of Cabarete on the north coast, though some residents chose to stay boarded up their homes and ride it out.

President Danilo Medina canceled work for public and private companies, and schools were closed until Monday as emergency workers spread out to manage the storm’s expected fallout.

The hurricane was expected to be Category 4 when it approaches Florida early Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said. Tropical-force winds were expected to batter the Florida Keys, which are under a mandatory evacuation order.

President Donald Trump has declared a state of emergency in Florida, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. He said on Thursday that Florida was “as well-prepared as you can be for something like this.”

Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard soldiers by Friday to help with the storm. He warned on NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday that Irma was “way bigger than Hurricane Andrew,” which hit the state hard in 1992, and that it could strike either coast.

“Everybody needs to listen to local officials about evacuation orders,” Scott said. “Make sure you have a plan.”

On CBS’ “This Morning,” he said that fuel was a particular concern – one that he discussed with the White House and with Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Wednesday – and that highways were already starting to become crowded.

“We’re doing everything we can to get gas into these stations so that people can evacuate,” he said.

In Florida, there are now either voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders in place in Miami-Dade County, the Florida Keys, and portions of Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Flagler, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lee, Manatee, Martin, Monroe, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Volusia Counties.

Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, extended a mandatory evacuation order to areas both along the county’s coastline and inland, including downtown Miami, Coral Gables, South Miami and North Miami Beach.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal ordered mandatory evacuations beginning on Saturday for all areas east of Interstate-95, a region that includes Savannah, as well as for some inland areas where storm surge might occur.

Scott said the storm surge in Florida would be unlike anything the state had seen. “This storm surge can kill you,” he said.

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