A Florida man who fell from a ladder was among the 22 victims of killer Hurricane Irma as the cataclysmic storm tore up the Caribbean and regained strength on its steady track towards the U.S.
The hurricane, with winds of up to 160 mph, recovered its Category 5 status Friday and led officials in the Sunshine State to order the evacuation of 5.6 million people as it bore down on its southern panhandle and the Florida Keys.
“We are running out of time,” declared Gov. Rick Scott. “If you are in an evacuation zone, you need to go now. This is a catastrophic storm like our state has never seen.”
The National Weather Service tweeted its own warning as Irma moved toward the Keys on Friday.
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“This is as real as it gets,” the terse message read. “Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe. You still have time to evacuate.”
The state’s first storm-related death came Thursday when a 57-year-old man died while installing shutters on a home outside of Fort Lauderdale, police said. The man was on a ladder when he plummeted 15 feet and struck his head on a pool deck, according to witnesses.
“I never seen anything like that in my life, though. It is really graphic,” Austin Doan told Local 10-ABC.
Irma, once the size of Texas, was expected to hit Florida on Sunday as potentially the most powerful hurricane in state history.
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The storm remained about 300 miles southeast of Miami late Friday, with hurricane conditions sweeping across parts of Cuba as it made landfall around 11 p.m. A 10-foot storm surge was expected to hit the Cuban coast.
Gas shortages and gridlock greeted Florida drivers trying to flee the killer hurricane.
The threat of the impending storm led officials at Florida theme parks to close for the weekend. Both Disney World and Universal Orlando will shut the gates from Saturday through Monday.
SeaWorld in Orlando and Busch Garden in Tampa will also close for the weekend.
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Florida Power & Light warned it was expecting “unprecedented” power outages.
More than 100 FDNY and NYPD first responders were already in Georgia, bracing for rescue and recovery efforts once Irma unleashes it fury on the mainland.
The team was dispatched last week to San Antonio in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
As Irma carved a path of destruction through the islands of St. Martin, St. Barts and St. Thomas, a small boy was killed in flooding on the tiny isle of Barbuda.
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A toddler, Carl Junior Francis, and his mom, Stevet Jeremiah, were overwhelmed after Irma tore the metal roof off their home, allowing the residence to flood with pounding rainwater. Jeremiah, who sells lobsters to tourists, was able to save her 4-year-old boy, but the younger child’s body was found hours later by neighbors.
“There was so much water beating past us,” the mom said. “I have never seen anything like this in my life. … Two years old. He just turned 2, the 17th, last month.”
A 16-year-old aspiring professional surfer drowned in Barbados, disappearing in the massive swells kicked up by the hurricane.
There were reports of looting and gunfire on the island of St. Martin.
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Some of those islands faced a double-barreled blast of deadly weather as Hurricane Jose, with 150 mph winds, moved in from the east.
“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to know that further damage is imminent,” said Inspector Frankie Thomas of the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda.
A third storm, Hurricane Katia made landfall Friday north of Tecolutla, Mexico, with whipping winds of 75 mph slamming the seaside town.
In Haiti, the water was knee-high from the storm that demolished homes, stores and boats on its way through the Caribbean. And in Turks and Caicos, government officials said the hurricane inflicted a half-billion dollars in damages — minimum.
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