- Hurricane Irma leaves at least 21 people dead as it thrashes the Caribbean
- The hurricane - the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean - has battered a string of islands, flattening homes, hospitals and airports
- Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic and poverty-stricken Haiti have already been hit
- The hurricane is powering towards the Bahamas and Cuba and is expected to land in Florida late on Saturday, where officials say it will ‘devastate’ some areas
- ‘Extremely dangerous’ hurricane downgraded to Category 4, despite winds remaining as strong as 155mph
- Meanwhile, Hurricane Jose has now been upgraded to a Category 4 storm
At least 21 people have been killed after Hurricane Irma - the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean - thrashed a string of Caribbean islands as it powers towards the US.
Officials have warned that the storm - expected to reach America by Saturday evening - will “devastate” parts of the country, with areas of Florida expected to lose electricity for days.
More than 100,000 people could need shelter, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cautioned.
“Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States in either Florida or some of the southeastern states,” Brock Long said according to Reuters.
A major evacuation effort is currently underway, with today (Friday) considered the last day to leave the area before winds reach unsafe speeds.
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Photos from the state show an almost-deserted Miami Beach, with many tourists and locals having already fled the path of the storm.
Meanwhile, a second storm - Hurricane Jose - has now been upgraded to the second strongest rating of Category 4, with the hurricane’s path reportedly covering some areas already devastated by Irma.
Hurricane Irma, which maintained 185mph winds for longer than any other in history, slammed into the British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos overnight.
While waves as high as 20 feet were predicted for the low-lying islands, the extent of the devastation remains unclear as communication was lost when the hurricane hit.
Speaking from Barbados, the head of UNICEF in the Eastern Caribbean Khin Sandi Lwin told HuffPost UK that the charity received “quick messages before the lines went down”.
“We heard that roofs were being blown off and that people were hiding in closets,” she said. “That was last night and we haven’t heard since.”
The charity’s “most pressing” concern is to now reach Turks and Caicos and other hurricane-hit islands to offer support.
“The seas are very rough and the airports are inoperable,” Lwin said “We have to get people on the ground and that’s the first efforts we are making right now.”
Irma’s lashing rains and hurricane-force winds have pummelled the Caribbean since Tuesday, with the UN predicting that as many as 37 million people could be caught in its ruinous wake.
While 95% of the buildings on the island of St Martin were destroyed when the hurricane landed, officials in Barbuda say the storm caused around $100 million worth of damage, leaving 50% of the population homeless.
The northern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti were also caught in Irma’s path. The storm comes less than a year after Haiti was devastated by Hurricane Matthew, which killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless.
Hurricane Irma is currently heading for the Bahamas, where it is expected to unleash more 20 foot storm surges before moving on to Cuba.
According to forecasters, the storm - which is currently around 495 miles southeast of Miami - will land in Florida late on Saturday night. A major evacuation effort is currently underway in the state.
While the “extremely dangerous” storm was reduced from Category 5 to Category 4 early this morning (Friday), the National Hurricane Centre warned that it remains a “life-threatening situations”, with winds remaining as strong as 155mph.
The storm has hit a number of British overseas territories, including the British Virgin Islands and the islands of Turks and Caicos.
However, the British government has been criticised for its “slow and late” response to the disaster, with a former UK EU representative for one of the islands branding the reaction “pathetic” and “disgraceful”.
On one of the islands, Anguilla, the storm destroyed homes, schools and damaged the only hospital.
The British Government has since announced that HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s flagship, will lead a group of helicopters, marines and engineers dispatched to the region amid fears for the safety of around 50,000 British citizens on various islands in the storm’s path.
UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said those affected were “British people” and the UK was “going to do everything possible to get help to them”.
But Sarah Thompson, a Briton in Tortola on the British Virgin Islands, who lost touch with her husband, called the British Government’s response “wretchedly, devastatingly inadequate and thin” and hit out at the lack of information on relief and assistance.
“The situation is heartbreakingly far from over... please God help us,” she wrote on Facebook.
It was the first time the Turks and Caicos islands had experienced a Category 5 storm, said Virginia Clerveaux, director of Disaster Management and Emergencies.
“We are expecting inundation from both rainfall as well as storm surge. And we may not be able to come rescue them in a timely manner,” she said in comments on Facebook.
The few tourists who remained on the Turks and Caicos islands were in hotels, as were some locals.
A witness told Reuters described the roof and walls of a well-built house shaking hard as the screaming storm rocked the island of Providenciales and caused a drop in pressure that could be felt in people’s chests.
Across the Caribbean, authorities rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of residents and tourists.
On islands in its wake, shocked locals tried to comprehend the extent of the devastation while simultaneously preparing for another major hurricane, Jose, now a Category 3 and due to hit the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday.