Irma barreled toward Florida after battering Puerto Rico and devastating a chain of small Caribbean islands, as the Category 5 hurricane threatens to turn into the most expensive storm in U.S. history.
Irma, one of three hurricanes churning toward North America, is forecast to hit Florida by Sunday afternoon, a prospect that has roiled markets for everything from orange juice to insurance and natural gas. A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for some areas including downtown Miami and Miami Beach. Barclays Plc has estimated insured losses in a worst-case scenario from the storm at $130 billion.
“The threat of direct hurricane impacts in Florida over the weekend and early next week continues to increase,” the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 5 a.m. New York time. The center of the storm will approach the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas Thursday evening bringing “life-threatening” storm surges and “large and destructive waves.”
Hurricane Jose was just behind Irma in the Atlantic, also forecast to move north of Puerto Rico. In the Gulf of Mexico a third hurricane, Katia, threatened to come ashore in Mexico.
Hurricane watches may be issued for parts of the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula as soon as Thursday, the NHC said. Reinsurance companies could take a big hit as primary insurers have reduced exposure to Florida in recent years, analysts say. Volatility in stocks across the sector will probably continue until the storm’s path and damage become more certain.
The system may knock out power to almost 2 million people, curb natural gas demand in one of the largest U.S. markets and threaten $1.2 billion worth of crops in Florida — the top U.S. grower of fresh tomatoes, oranges, green beans, cucumbers, squash and sugarcane.
By late Wednesday, Irma was expected to have generated more energy than the entire 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, said Phil Klotzbach, a storm researcher at Colorado State University.
The storm damaged or destroyed as much as 95 percent of homes on the small island of Barbuda, crippled its airport runway and broke a cellular tower in two, complicating relief efforts, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said on national television. “It is absolutely heart-wrenching.”
The hurricane caused massive damage in the two French West Indies islands and police have been sent to restore order, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said at a press conference in Paris Thursday. At least eight people have died so far, Collomb said.
Six of those fatalities occurred on the French island of Saint-Martin, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Daniel Gibbs, the president of the regional council. French President Emmanuel Macron will travel as soon as possible to the area hit by Hurricane Irma, AFP reported, citing Macron’s office.
In the U.S., mandatory evacuations were issued for the Florida Keys and Governor Rick Scott said he expected additional evacuation orders. President Donald Trump said in a Twitter post that he is “watching hurricane closely” and his team is already in the state. In addition to Miami-Dade’s mandatory evacuations, Broward and Collier counties issued voluntary evacuation orders for some areas.
Irma comes less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey smashed ashore in Texas, knocking offline almost a quarter of U.S. oil refining capacity and causing widespread power outages and flooding. Current models show Irma veering away from gas and oil platforms off the coast of Texas and Louisiana, sparing Houston more devastation.
Irma’s top winds weakened slightly to 180 miles (290 kilometers) an hour from 185 miles an hour previously, but the storm remained Category 5 strength, the highest measure on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale. It was about 95 miles north of the Dominican Republic as of about 5 a.m. New York time, according to the NHC.
A direct strike on Miami at Category 4 strength could lead to insured losses of $125 billion to $130 billion, Jay Gelb, an analyst at Barclays, wrote in a note Tuesday. Uninsured losses would add to that. Losses from Katrina, both insured and uninsured, reached $160 billion in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005.
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Only three Category 5 hurricanes have hit the contiguous 48 U.S. states, according to Weather Underground: the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that devastated the Florida Keys, Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Andrew that cut across Florida in 1992.
In other storm news:
- Orange juice futures closed near their highest level since May on Wednesday, and U.S. sugar rallied to the highest since July.
- U.S. airlines capped ticket prices for passengers fleeing the hurricane and hotels across the Caribbean shut.
- Insurers including Progressive Corp. and Allstate Corp. stopped issuing policies on new cars in some Florida counties.
- Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. gave passengers on the Norwegian Escape a choice to get off the ship in Miami or stay on board and sail away from the storm.