CAP-HAÏTIEN, Haiti -  Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean on Friday, leaving a trail of devastation and killing 17 as it barrelled towards the United States where up to a million people have been told to flee.

So far, 1.2 million people have been affected by Irma, the Red Cross said. But that number looks set to rise - and could reach as high as 26 million, the agency said.

With the monster storm expected to reach the American south by the weekend, coastal areas of Florida and Georgia were battening down the hatches and carrying out their biggest evacuation since 2005. "The entire southeastern United States better wake up and pay attention," warned US federal emergency chief Brock Long. "It will be truly devastating." Roaring across the Caribbean, the rare Category Five hurricane laid waste to a series of tiny islands like St Martin, where 60 percent of homes were wrecked, before slamming into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

By Friday morning, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) had downgraded Irma to Category Four with maximum wind speeds of up to 155 miles per hour (250 kilometres per hour) while warning it was still extremely dangerous.

On many islands, violent winds have ripped roofs and facades off buildings, hurling lumps of concrete, cars and even shipping containers aside.

$10b damage so far

Hurricane Irma has caused more than $10 billion (8.3 billion euros) in damage across the Caribbean so far, making it the costliest storm ever to hit the region's island nations and territories, disaster risk experts said Friday.

Compiled by the Center for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology (CEDIM) in Germany, the estimate covers a dozen island nations and territories hit by Friday, along with projections for the Turks and Caicos, which are on the hurricane's path.

"This will likely be a $10 billion loss across the Caribbean - a huge loss," said James Daniell, senior risk engineer at CEDIM, and head of its Forensic Disaster Analysis Group.

On the Dutch side of St Martin, one person died, officials said. Dutch King Willem-Alexander will head to the island of Curacao to the south on Sunday for a briefing on the aid operation, and may travel on to St Martin, officials said.

"It's as if a bomb went off. Before everything was so beautiful and green here. Now everything is as grey as a Dutch winter," retired police officer Klaas Groen told Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. A state of emergency has been declared in the British Virgin Islands where residents spoke of scenes of "total devastation".

"Our downstairs doors suddenly blew out, which was terrifying," Emily Killhoury told the BBC from her home in Tortola. "We eventually emerged at about 7:00 pm to see total devastation."

Britain's defence ministry said it was sending two military transport planes to the region carrying personnel, supplies and recovery equipment.

'Looting'

As European nations quickly mobilized to help their citizens in the Caribbean, French and Dutch ministers said they were sending hundreds of extra police to St Martin tackle a spate of "looting".

The storm has caused major shortages of food, water and petrol. "The situation is serious," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Friday when asked about reports of looting on the island.

Speaking to Algemeen Dagblad, one witness reported seeing "people with guns and machetes" in the street.

French Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin said 400 police officers would be deployed after seeing "pillaging right in front of us" in St Martin where most of the 80,000 inhabitants have lost their homes.

In the Dominican Republic, torrential rain and powerful winds whipped the northern and eastern coasts, leaving 17 districts cut off.

Nearly 20,000 people were evacuated and more than 100 houses destroyed.

And in Cuba, some 10,000 foreign tourists were evacuated from beach resorts as authorities hiked the disaster alert level to maximum.

Florida mass exodus

as Hurricane Irma closes in

Florida’s highways were jammed Friday with families fleeing their homes as Hurricane Irma honed in on the Sunshine State after reducing island resorts to rubble and killing at least 17 people across the Caribbean.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic snaked north out of the peninsula, with mattresses, gas cans, mattresses and kayaks strapped to car roofs, as residents heeded increasingly insistent warnings to get out and Florida’s governor said all of the state’s 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate. “Hurricane Irma is of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen,” US President Donald Trump warned on Twitter. “Be safe and get out of its way, if possible.”

Roaring across the Caribbean, the monster storm laid waste to a series of tiny islands like Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin, where 60 percent of homes were wrecked and scenes of looting have broken out, before slamming into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. “Houses are smashed, the airport is out of action, telephone and electricity poles are on the ground,” Olivier Toussaint, a resident of Saint-Barthelemy, told AFP. “Upside-down cars are in the cemeteries. Boats are sunk in the marina, shops are destroyed.”

Hurricane Katia strengthens to Category Two off Mexico

Hurricane Katia strengthened on Friday to Category Two storm on a scale of five as it raged towards the eastern coast of Mexico, authorities said.

Mexico's National Water Commission meteorological authority said Katia picked up strength as it swirled in the Gulf of Mexico 205 kilometers (127 miles) from the major port city of Veracruz.

 

AFP