At least ten people have been killed after the “potentially catastrophic” Hurricane Irma - the strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded - hit the Caribbean islands.
The Category 5 storm - which has thrashed several islands with tree-snapping winds and drenching rains - left eight people dead after it hit the French Caribbean island territory of Saint Martin, Reuters reported.
A local government official said the death toll was likely to rise in the next few hours, with parts of the island remaining unexplored following the storm.
St Martin’s airport has also been destroyed, while footage from the island shows submerged streets and flooded homes.
“It is an enormous disaster, 95 percent of the island is destroyed, I am in shock,” Daniel Gibbs, chairman of a local council on Saint Martin, told Radio Caribbean International.
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Meanwhile, it was confirmed that the hurricane - which sustained winds of up to 185 miles per hour - also killed a person on the island of Barbuda, which was “totally demolished” by the storm.
Gaston Browne, prime minister of the dual-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, said that 90% of all dwellings on the island - which is home to roughly 1,800 people - had been destroyed.
He told the BBC that 50% of the population were now homeless and that it would cost $100m to rebuild the island.
The death of a surfer on Barbados has also been reported, while power has been knocked out on the islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy. France has sent emergency food and water rations to the islands.
The storm has recently passed north of Puerto Rico, knocking out power for much of the island.
The UN has estimated that as many as 37 million people could be affected by the hurricane, the Associated Press reported.
According to BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, much of the US territory has been left without power - including 22 hospitals, with power companies reporting it could be four months before it is fully restored.
Forecasters believe Hurricane Irma will reach Florida on Saturday or Sunday, hitting the US just a week after it was struck by Hurricane Harvey, which killed at least 60 people and caused as much as $180 billion of damage.
Irma is expected to remain at least a Category 4 storm - the second strongest storm rating - before arriving in Florida.
It is shaping up to be such a threat that even the experts are upping their warnings, branding it “potentially catastrophic”.
Ed Rappaport, acting director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center, told local TV station WFOR-TV that Irma is a “once-in-a-generation storm”, calling it “the big one for us”.
Evacuations in Florida have already begun ahead of the storm’s arrival, with all tourists ordered to leave the Florida Keys.
President Donald Trump said his team was monitoring Irma’s progress.
“But it looks like it could be something that will be not good. Believe me, not good,” he told reporters.
According to Reuters, Trump has approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, mobilising federal disaster relief efforts.
Meanwhile, “a lot” of buildings have been destroyed on billionaire Richard Branson’s Necker Island.
His son Sam took to Instagram to say that “all humans on Necker are ok although a lot of buildings destroyed”.
“Homes can be rebuilt but lives can’t,” he added.
All the latest on Hurricane Irma below.
In Cuba, just 90 miles (145 km) south of the Keys, authorities posted a hurricane alert for the island’s central and eastern regions, as residents in Havana, the capital, were seen waiting line lines to stock up on foodstuffs, water and gasoline.
The eye of Irma was passing just north of Puerto Rico late Wednesday, buffeting the U.S. island territory’s capital, San Juan, with heavy downpours and strong winds that scattered tree limbs across roadways.
“The winds that we are experiencing right now are like nothing we have experienced before,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN. “We expect a lot of damage, perhaps not as much as was seen in Barbuda.”
At least half of Puerto Rico’s homes and businesses lost electricity by nightfall, according to a Twitter message posted by an island utility executive.
Aerial television footage of Barbuda, a tiny island just 250 miles (400 km) east of Puerto Rico, showed a desolate, flooded landscape shorn of trees and foliage, littered with debris and overturned vehicles.
Among the higher-end property losses on the island was the Paradise Found Nobu Resort, partially owned by Hollywood screen star Robert De Niro, according to Stan Rosenfield, a spokesman for the actor.
The Dutch islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius also were hit, with damage believed to be extensive, according to the Netherlands ambassador to the United Nations, Karel van Oosterom.
On its current path the core of Irma, which the NHC said marked the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years, was expected to scrape the northern coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday. It was on a track that would put it near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas by Thursday evening.