IRMA STORMS AHEAD: Hurricane blasts into Turks and Caicos - with Florida still in its sights
Hurricane Irma continued driving toward Florida early Friday, making landfall in Turks and Caicos, where waves were expected to reach 20 feet.
The Category 4 storm, regarded as the most powerful in the Atlantic in recorded history, was bringing wind gusts of 155 mph - not as strong as the 185 mph of previous days, but forceful enough to cause severe damage to homes and other structures.
At least 14 deaths have been attributed to Irma, Reuters reported: Four people died in the U.S. Virgin islands; one person died in Barbuda; another person was killed in Anguilla; four bodies were recovered on the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin; three people were killed in Puerto Rico; and a surfer was reported killed in Barbados.
Cuba started evacuating tourists, including 36,000 visitors to its northern resorts, Reuters added.
Puerto Rico still had hundreds of thousands of customers left without electricity.
Turks and Caicos lost communications as the storm struck, but the full extent of the devastation there was not immediately clear.
Late Thursday, the National Hurricane Center issued hurricane warnings for South Florida and the Keys, as forecasters predicted a sizable portion of the state will be affected when Irma reaches the state during the weekend.
Major roads in South Florida were congested most of Thursday, as Floridians heeded Gov. Rick Scott's order to leave an evacuation zone that is home to 500,000 people.
Some predicted that Irma could eclipse 1992's Hurricane Andrew as the storm that haunts Floridians long after it ends.
"The effect of Irma on the state of Florida is going to be much greater than Andrew's effect," said Weather Channel senior hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross, who was a local television meteorologist hailed as a hero during Andrew. "We're dealing with an entirely different level of phenomenon. There is no storm to compare with this. Unless you go way back to 1926."
An update at 2 a.m. EDT Friday from the National Hurricane Center showed Irma to be located 20 miles north of Great Inagua Island and about 535 miles east-southeast of Miami -- with wind gusts of 160 mph. The storm was moving about 16 mph, the hurricane center said.
The hurricane center said its storm surge warning covers Jupiter Inlet southward around the Florida peninsula to Bonita Beach, as well as the Florida Keys.
Its hurricane warning covers Jupiter Inlet southward around the Florida peninsula to Bonita Beach, as well as the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee, and Florida Bay.
In addition, a storm surge watch has been issued for the east coast of Florida, north of Jupiter Inlet to Sebastian Inlet and for the west coast of Florida north of Bonita Beach to Venice.
A hurricane watch has been issued for the east coast of Florida
north of Jupiter Inlet to Sebastian Inlet and for the west coast of
Florida north of Bonita Beach to Anna Maria Island.
Meanwhile, the government of the Dominican Republic has discontinued the hurricane warning for the country's northern coast, the hurricane center said.
Earlier Thursday, Gov. Scott urged hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate before Hurricane Irma makes potential landfall - as forecast models on Thursday predicted the storm moving further west, more directly in the state's path.
"If you live in any evacuation zones and you're still at home, leave!" Scott warned at a news conference Thursday. "Do not try to ride out this storm. ... We can't save you once the storm hits."
Scott said that regardless of their location, people should be ready to get out. The governor noted that Florida's western coast "will still have hurricane conditions."
The storm is expected to travel west in the coming days, and will remain a Category 5, or possibly drop to a 4, according to the NHC.
With winds that peaked earlier at 185 mph, Hurricane Irma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, and has killed at least 13 people, including four deaths in the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the Associated Press.
"Look at the size of this storm. It is wider than our entire state," Scott said. "Every Floridian should take this serious and protect your family."
Gov. Scott said he's activated 4,000 members of the National Guard in Florida, and all 7,000 will be deployed on Friday.
Shifting forecasts have also raised the threat to the Southeast from Irma, prompting emergency declarations in the Carolinas and coastal Georgia, including areas that haven't suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered a mandatory evacuation starting on Saturday from the state's Atlantic coast ahead of Hurricane Irma, including the city of Savannah. Nearly 540,000 residents on the coast were ordered to evacuate inland.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also declared a state of emergency. A major strike there would be the first in nearly 28 years.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.Florida, Weather, Hurricane, Fainted, Mega Storm, Irma , Hurricane Track, Storm Surge