Hurricane Irma continued Saturday to unleash powerful wind and heavy rain on the northern coast of Cuba as it churned toward Florida after killing at least 22 people and inflicting catastrophic destruction elsewhere in the Atlantic region.
In addition to Cuba, U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) hurricane warnings were in effect for the Bahamian islands of Andros, Bimini and Grand Bahama, the Florida peninsula and the Florida Keys.
The NHC said Irma had weakened from a Category 4 to a Category 3 hurricane but was expected to regain strength as it approached the Florida Keys.
The storm, one of the strongest in recorded history, was projected to begin pounding the Keys Sunday morning and approach the southwestern coast of Florida Sunday afternoon.
Florida asked 5.6 million people — more than one-quarter of the state's population — to evacuate ahead of the hurricane's expected landfall.
Governor Rick Scott characterized Irma as "a catastrophic storm that this state has never seen before," noting that the storm was wider than the state.
Scott warned, "We are running out of time," and issued an appeal on Twitter for 1,000 volunteer nurses.
CALLING ALL NURSES: FL needs 1,000 volunteer nurses to help at our special needs shelters. Please email BPRCHDPreparedness@flhealth.gov— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) September 9, 2017
Forecasts indicatd the Keys, southwestern Florida and the Tampa Bay area might take direct hits from Irma. But southeast Florida, including Miami, could still feel the fury of the storm.
"That doesn't mean we won't have 20 inches of rain, storm surge. ... We're going to have a hurricane here," said Miami-based National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen.
Alp Inal, a businessman in Miami, told VOA’s Turkish service that the city looked like a ghost town as most people heeded warnings to evacuate.
“South Beach, midtown, all these areas are empty. People are fleeing the city by car or by plane if they can find tickets to anywhere. You cannot find gasoline at gas stations, and more than half of the gas stations in Miami are not operational,” Inal said.
He said his family was flying to Boston because it was the only place they could get plane tickets to. “We searched for tickets to New York, Washington, Atlanta and Nashville, but we couldn't find any,” he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his Cabinet were to meet Saturday at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, to discuss the hurricane.
"It's a really bad one, but we're prepared at the highest level. Hopefully, everything will be well," Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn Friday before departing for Camp David.
Trump posted a tweet Saturday that included links to shelters and other information that will be useful to storm victims.
Kathleen Fox, acting deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told VOA, "We've got tens of thousands of liters of water, we've got food, we've got cots, we've got medical supplies prepositioned, toddler kits, which include diapers, formula, those kinds of things."
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert was asked during a White House media briefing Friday about his greatest concern. "We're worried about the fuel shortages," he replied, noting five or six oil refineries in Texas were still out of operation because of damage from Hurricane Harvey last week.
Destruction in Caribbean
En route to Cuba and Florida, Irma ripped through 160-square-kilometer Barbuda, prompting Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda to say the island was now "rubble."
The prime minister estimated about 95 percent of all the buildings on Barbuda had been destroyed or damaged.
The island nation was bracing for the impact of Category 4 Hurricane Jose.
On the island of St. Martin, shared by France and the Netherlands, there were "scenes of pillaging" as people looted stores and took to the streets in search of food and water, according to Annick Girardin, France's minister for overseas territories.View full gallery
It could be up to six months before all power is restored on cash-strapped Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where Irma knocked out power to more than 1 million people.
Irma also lashed Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, with fierce winds and heavy rain, but spared those two countries a direct hit.
The U.S. Defense Department has deployed three Navy ships, about two dozen aircraft and hundreds of Marines to help with recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
After taking an aerial tour Friday of the destruction on St. John and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp simply said, "It's just bad."
Mapp said St. John seemed to have been "whacked harder" by the storm's strong winds, causing "structural collapses."
Four deaths were reported in the U.S. Virgin Islands, while there was widespread destruction on St. Thomas, including its hospital, port and sewage treatment plant.
Mehmet Sumer from VOA’s Turkish service contributed to this report.