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10 dead in eastern Caribbean as Hurricane Irma continues march toward Florida

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Gustavo Galindo pumps propane into tanks at the Exxon gas station on State Road 84 and 130th Avenue in Davie, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 as a long line of people wait to fill up their gas tanks before Hurrance Irma hits South Florida. (Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS)
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MIAMI — A string of small, devastated Caribbean islands counted their dead and struggled to restore links to the outside world on Thursday as Hurricane Irma, bearing historically powerful winds and torrents of rain, marched onward toward Florida after brushing past Puerto Rico.

The death toll rose to at least 10, as the governments of France, the Netherlands and Britain warned that word of more fatalities and damage in their tiny island territories were likely to emerge as rescuers arrived. Most of the deaths were on the island of St. Martin, divided into French and Dutch sectors, with others occurring in the independent island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

As the monster storm passed Puerto Rico, tens of thousands were left without power or water or both, and dangerous storm surges menaced the U.S. territory.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic, plus the Turks and Caicos and parts of the Bahamas, lay in harm’s way on Thursday as the hurricane moved west-northwest, with sustained winds close to 180 mph. The National Hurricane Center projected that Irma would remain at Category 4 or 5 storm into the weekend, as it tracked toward Cuba and Florida.

In the Bahamas, airports were closing even as people sought to flee. The international airport in Nassau, the capital, was to close later Thursday. A day earlier, six small southern islands were evacuated, with residents flown to the capital for safety.

In densely populated South Florida, flight from the mighty storm turned chaotic at times, with the state’s two main south-north arteries clogged with traffic and gasoline in short supply. Extra Highway Patrol troopers were trying to keep vehicles moving, towing disabled cars left by the roadside.

Butch and Sharon Rackley, retirees who live on low-lying Pine Island, were preparing to fly out Thursday and stay with relatives in Missouri. Wednesday night found them at a Waffle House in Punta Gorda, just off Interstate 75.

“We’re getting … out of here,” said Butch Rackley, using an expletive. “We’re not playing with this thing.”

That was exactly what state officials hoped for.

“This is a big, big, big storm,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott told CNN. “When somebody tells you to evacuate, evacuate. Take this seriously.”

The Florida Keys, where a mandatory evacuation order was in place, were emptying, with 31,000 people having departed as of Thursday morning, Scott said. An advisory evacuation was in place in Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county.

Shelters were opening all over the state, the governor said, with volunteers fanning out. Scott acknowledged gasoline shortages, urging people not to fill up tanks if they were planning to shelter in place.

“We’re asking people to take what they need — don’t take more than you need,” he said.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, tweeted a reminder to those in Irma’s path to “be careful, be safe” as the storm approaches.

As Thursday dawned, daylight harshly illuminated the storm’s destructive rampage through eastern Caribbean islands, many with Colonial-era links to western European countries. Boats were tossed onto land. Electrical wires dangled. Streets had turned to rivers. Structures were splintered, with doors and shutters leaning at crazy angles.

“It’s an enormous disaster — 95 percent of the island is destroyed,” Daniel Gibbs, chairman of a local council on the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, told Radio Caribbean International.

France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, told French radio that more dead and injured were likely to be discovered as authorities “explore all the shores.”

The Dutch military, mounting an aid mission to the Dutch side of St. Martin, tweeted images of wrecked homes and hotels. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said reports were sketchy, but there had been large-scale destruction.

“There is no power, no gasoline, no running water,” Dutch media quoted him as saying. “Houses are underwater, cars are floating in the streets and people are sitting in the dark, in ruined houses, cut off from the outside world.

The independent island nation of Antigua and Barbuda reported overwhelming destruction on Barbuda, with 90 percent of buildings damaged or destroyed and one death reported. Prime Minister Gaston Browne, speaking to the BBC, called it “total carnage.”

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who had predicted a “harsh” ultimate toll in France’s Caribbean territories, used the occasion to call attention to the dangers of global warming.

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