Hurricane Irma upgraded to Cat 5 as storm tracks toward South Florida

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Thousands of Irma victims across the Caribbean fought desperately to find shelter or escape their storm-blasted islands altogether Friday as another hurricane following close behind threatened to add to their misery. (WLS)

Thousands of Irma victims across the Caribbean fought desperately to find shelter or escape their storm-blasted islands altogether Friday as another hurricane following close behind threatened to add to their misery.

Irma regained Category 5 status late Friday, and with its 160 mph (260 kph) winds battering Cuba and taking aim at the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, the death toll in the storm's wake across the Caribbean climbed to 22.

PHOTOS: Irma leaves devastation in its wake as it moves through the Caribbean

A deadly Hurricane Irma scraped Cuba's northern coast Friday on a course toward Florida, leaving in its wake a ravaged string of Caribbean resort islands strewn with splintered lumber, corrugated metal and broken concrete.

And a new danger lay on the horizon to the east: Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds that could punish some of the devastated areas all over again.

"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.

WATCH: Drone footage over British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma
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Drone footage shows damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the British Virgin Islands (Hubert Haciski/Facebook)

Irma weakened from a Category 5 to a still-fearsome Category 4 on Friday morning with winds of 155 mph (250 kph). It was upgraded back to a Category 5 storm late Friday night.

The hurricane smashed homes, schools, stores, roads and boats on Wednesday and Thursday as it rolled over islands long known as turquoise-water playgrounds of the rich, including St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

PHOTOS: The Path of Hurricane Irma

It knocked out power, water and telephone service, trapped thousands of tourists and stripped the lush green trees of leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted-looking landscape. Authorities reported looting and gunfire in St. Martin, and a curfew was imposed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In heavily damaged Barbuda, Stevet Jeremiah's 2-year-old son was swept to his death after the hurricane ripped the roof off her house and filled it with water.

"There was so much water beating past us. We had to crawl to get to safety. Crawl," she said. "I have never seen anything like this in my life, in all the years I experienced hurricanes. And I don't ever, ever, ever want to see something like this again."

She added: "I have nothing. Not even an ID to say my name. Nothing. House gone. The only thing you see is the foundation."

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Miami Beach residents and businesses prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

The crisis was a glimpse of what could lie ahead early Sunday for Florida, which braced for what many fear could be the long-dreaded Big One, with the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million in the crosshairs.

Floridians arrive on final flights to Chicago

Mixed emotions in Chicago for people anxiously watching Irma on Friday.

Some concerned about loved ones riding out the storm, while others have property there.

Then there are those who have arrived in Chicago, just happy to be on safer ground.

The McMahons of Boca Raton, Florida are together and safe in Chicago on Friday night.

The family, separated with the boys at college, flew out of three different Florida airports.

Miami Airport now a ghost town after its busiest day in a decade. Many booked flights randomly anywhere out of the storm zone.

For others, driving was the only option.

After Disney World closed and their flight home was canceled, Frank Urso of Plainfield piled his wife and four kids, ages one to nine, into a rental car to escape the storm.

Back at O'Hare, a mix of relief and anxiety among Flordians.

"Don't know what's going to be left, what's to be going back to, we'll find that out. Then we'll move from there," said Florida resident Jack Smith.

Jack Smith turns 87 on Saturday. The best birthday present, he said, was being safe with his wife in Chicago.

Irma set to be a record storm

Irma was at one point the most powerful recorded storm in the open Atlantic. It could be one of the most devastating storms ever to hit Florida, a state that has undergone rapid development since the last major storm struck a dozen years ago.

Florida residents and tourists faced gas shortages and gridlock on inland highways as a half-million people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to clear out.

Irma rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti and battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday with waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters). Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was not immediately clear.

The hurricane also spun along the northern coast of Cuba, where tens of thousands of people were being moved to safety, including thousands of tourists along a shoreline dotted with all-inclusive resorts.

U.S., Dutch, French and British authorities used warships and military planes to rush food, water and troops to the stricken zone.

On the island of St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, power lines and towers were toppled, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged, and the harbor was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.

Laura Strickling, who moved to St. Thomas with her husband three years ago from Washington so he could take a job first as a law clerk and then with a law firm, huddled with him and their year-old daughter in a basement apartment along with another family as the storm raged.

"The noise was just deafening. It was so loud we thought the roof was gone. The windows were boarded up, so it was hot and we had no AC, no power," she said. She said she and the three other adults "were terrified but keeping it together for the babies.

Strickland, an opera singer used to visit her husband in Afghanistan when he worked there, added: "I've had to sit through a Taliban gunfight, and this was scarier."

When they emerged they found their apartment on the top floor was unscathed.

"There are no leaves. It is crazy," she said. "One of the things we loved about St. Thomas is that it was so green. And it's gone."

Thousands of tourists were trapped on St. Martin, St. Barts, and the Virgin Islands in the path of Jose, which threatened to strike as early as Saturday. Authorities rushed to evacuate as many people as possible from Barbuda ahead of the new storm.

Some of the Irma-ravaged islands could see tropical-storm force winds and heavy rain from Jose, said Jeff Masters of the private forecasting service Weather Underground.

"It's insult added to injury definitely, but nothing compared to what they already went through," Masters said. "It's going to hamper relief efforts, so that's a big deal."

On St. Martin, which is divided between Dutch and French control, cafes and shops were swamped, and the storm left gnarled black branches stripped of leaves. Battered cars, corrugated metal, plywood, wrought iron and other debris covered street after street. Roofs were torn off numerous houses.

There was little left of the Hotel Mercure but its sign, painted on a still-standing wall.

The cleanup was already underway for some. One man chopped at the branches of a bare tree. Another heaved what appeared to be furniture stuffing onto a pile. People sat in chairs outside a hospital, waiting to be seen.

"We've had quite some looting that has taken place, unfortunately," said William Marlin, prime minister of the Dutch side of the island.

Marlin said that in the aftermath of such a disaster, "people become kind of hopeless and there is no communication."

The dead included 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda.

The hospital on St. Thomas was destroyed and dozens of patients were being evacuated to St. Croix and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Chicago community mounts relief effort for Puerto Rico
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It could be months before Puerto Rico recovers from Hurricane Irma.

Chicago's Puerto Rican community is mounting a relief effort to help the U.S. territory. It could be months before Puerto Rico recovers from Hurricane Irma.

The Chicago-based community organization, the Puerto Rican Agenda, is creating an emergency task force to help with the relief efforts.

"The way it has been reported in terms of this storm is everything has been focused on Florida, very little mention of Puerto Rico and this only compounds to the economic and humanitarian crisis that our island is experiencing," said Cristina Pacione-Zayas with the Puerto Rico Agenda.

As the financially strapped U.S. Territory starts to rebuild, another powerful storm is on its way, fueling more concern in the local Puerto Rican community. Some are still desperately trying to get in contact with their loved ones.

More than one million people are without power including Chicago native Efrain Ortiz who lives in Rio Grande with his family.

"We are very thankful that the last minute Irma turned north instead of to continue the path that it was because the eye was right off our coast. It would have been catastrophic if the winds hit us completely," said Puerto Rican resident Efrain Ortiz.

Florida air travel starts to shut down ahead of Irma

Hurricane Irma's impending landfall in Florida is forcing airlines serving some of the largest airports in America to shutter operations and get out of the way of the powerful storm.

Irma has already trashed airports, buildings and roads in the Caribbean. St. Maarten, a major international destination for U.S. and European carriers, was in ruins after the storm. Photos from the Netherlands Ministry of Defense showed its runway covered in sand and widespread damage at its terminal building and jetways.

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While many people flew out of Florida in advance of the storm, some former Chicago-area residents are prepared to ride out the storm.

By late Saturday, Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale - home to the 12th, 13th, 21st largest airports in the U.S., respectively - will be largely dormant as the extreme weather rolls in.

But the prospect of a direct hit from Irma represents another blow to U.S. air travel in one of the busiest air corridors on the planet for business and leisure travel.

Among Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, the three airports handled more than 115 million passengers in 2016.

The scramble was so acute that the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday evening said air traffic controllers were increasing the space between flights from Miami and nearby Fort Lauderdale to enable them to better manage the crowded skies. And American Airlines was briefly under an FAA ground stop in Miami due to ATC rerouting outbound aircraft.

The airline had added 16 extra flights from Miami on Thursday, including 12 to Dallas, one to Philadelphia and three to New York, enough room for more than 3,600 passengers. The Fort Worth-based carrier said it has canceled more than 2,400 flights as of Thursday afternoon stretching through Sept. 11.

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As the hours tick down to Irma's arrival in Florida, there's a sense of resignation among many who have chosen to ride out this monster of a storm, not to mention how their loved ones in Chicago are feeling.

The biggest single carrier in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale region is American, which accounts of 38% of the flying there, according to Morgan Stanley. Southwest Airlines is the largest single operator in Orlando at 20%.

Delta Air Lines, too, has added 2,000 additional seats on Thursday flights out of Florida and Caribbean islands, including the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, including 1,500 from Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Airlines and airports operate preparedness plans in 72, 48 and 24 hour markers, evacuating aircraft and personnel and preparing stations as part of a methodical checklist ahead of a storm's arrival, according to Ken Jenkins, principal crisis response strategist at NavAid Crisis Consulting Group.

American, which has a hub in Miami, will operate its last outbound flight from the airport on Friday, when it departs for Dallas just before 4 p.m. American is also shutting operations in Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach.

Miami hasn't announced if it will cease commercial flying during the storm, but once sustained winds hit 55 miles per hour, aircraft cannot take off or land.

Air traffic controllers may shelter at lower levels in control towers or nearby buildings and will remain on duty, according to the FAA, "and are ready to go back to work as soon as the storm passes."

Commercial flights will cease at Key West Airport at 8 p.m. on Friday and Orlando International Airport at 5 p.m. on Saturday due to Hurricane Irma and Fort Lauderdale at 7:45 p.m. In Orlando, 50 knot winds will shut down the airport's outdoor tram which shuttles passengers between terminals.

The duration of any shutdown remains uncertain. American said any timeline for resumption of flights will be governed by not only airport conditions, but also the ability of airport and airline staff to get to work.

It's not just commercial airlines getting out of Irma's path.

Farther north in South Carolina, Boeing said it was suspending manufacturing operations starting on Saturday morning. The company's expansive North Charleston facility is flying out any 787 Dreamliner that's able to fly or bringing aircraft inside the factory, which is rated for a category five hurricane.

Aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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A couple now stranded at a resort on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands talked about the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Friday.

A couple from the Chicago suburbs now stranded at a resort on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands talked about the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Friday.

"Looks like a tornado had gone through Midwestern Illinois," said Brian Olson who is stranded on St. Thomas.

That's how Olson described what it looked like when the sun rose on Thursday just hours after Hurricane Irma unleashed its wrath on the resort in St. Thomas where he his wife were staying.

Irma has killed at least three people on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

CNN contributed to this report.

Related Topics:
weatheru.s. & worldhurricane irmaFlorida
(Copyright ©2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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