The hurricane is expected to hit the US around the weekend after passing north of Puerto Rico. EPA

Hurricane Irma has caused a trail of destruction across parts of the Caribbean, battering a number of islands and reducing buildings to rubble.

The powerful storm, which is already said to have affected an estimated 1.2m people, is predicted to head north-west to the United States, reaching Florida or neighbouring south-eastern states from Sunday.

Irma has been making headlines as the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade with wind speeds of up to 295km/h (185mph).

Damages in the coast of Saint Martin after Hurricane Irma the 7th of september / AFP / LIONEL CHAMOISEAU

It hit the Caribbean on Wednesday as a category five hurricane, the highest possible level for such a storm, but was downgraded on Friday to a category four.

As the storm hit Cuba, the large landmass slowed the storm to 215km/h (130mph) – but forecasters predict it will strengthen once again.

What damage has it done?

The storm first caused massive devastation when it struck the small island of Barbuda – which was later said to be “barely habitable”, and the island of St Martin, which is split into the French territory of Saint-Martin and the Dutch country of Sint Maarten.

It also badly hit the French territory Saint Barthélemy, popularly known as St Barts.

At least nine people were reported killed in Saint-Martin and Saint Barthélemy. Another death was later reported in Sint Maarten, with local officials saying that most buildings there have been levelled.

Four deaths were confirmed on the US Virgin Islands, which suffered widespread damage to infrastructure.

Before and after: Stills and footage show St Martin then and now

At least three people were reported dead in Puerto Rico, the governor’s office said. More than half of the island’s three million residents were without power and officials said many could be cut off for several days.

The hurricane also hit the British overseas territories of Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands (BVI), where a state of emergency has been declared.

One person was killed on Anguilla and a child died on Barbuda.

The hurricane went on to batter the Turks and Caicos islands further north on Thursday evening.

A satellite image shows Hurricane Irma (left) and Hurricane Jose (right) in the Atlantic Ocean

 

Haiti and the Dominican Republic were both affected by the extreme weather, but neither had as much damage as initially feared.

With the scale of the damage still emerging, the death toll across the region is likely to rise.

An estimated 1.2 million people have been affected by Irma and that could rise sharply to 26 million, the Red Cross has said.

Huracán Irma destruye 90% de estructuras en Barbuda. REUTERS

About 50,000 tourists are fleeing or have fled Cuba, with resorts on the north coast now empty, Reuters reports.

Forecasters projecting the direction of the storm warn that the path could alter and it should not be seen as a guarantee of safety for those in nearby regions.

What is Irma’s projected path?

The hurricane is moving relatively slowly, at about 19km/h (12mph), as it heads towards the southern US coast from the Atlantic.

The eye of the storm is moving across Cuba, and is set to hit Florida as a category four hurricane on Sunday, bringing storm surges and flooding.

More than five million people – at least a quarter of the state’s population – have been ordered to evacuate.

About 50,000 tourists are fleeing or have fled Cuba, with resorts on the north coast now empty, Reuters reports.

Forecasters projecting the direction of the storm warn that the path could alter and it should not be seen as a guarantee of safety for those in nearby regions.

 

How badly will the US be hit?

A state of emergency had been declared for Florida and the US is mobilising federal disaster relief efforts. Formal hurricane warnings are in effect for several areas.

A storm surge – rising seawater coming in from the coast – is also expected. Forecasters say the water is potentially life-threatening, with swells up to 12ft above ground.

Palmeras dobladas en una calle debido a los intensos vientos de “Irma” en Florida. Foto: AP / Wilfredo Lee

The National Weather Service has said that there is a possibility that South Florida “may be uninhabitable for weeks or months”.

Officials have been evacuating tourists and residents of Florida Keys, a resort archipelago.

Flights to and from several airports in Florida have been suspended, while Orlando’s international airport reported that commercial flights would stop from 17:00 local time on Saturday.

People in Miami Beach have been covering the windows of their homes and shops. REUTERS

The state of Georgia is forecast to be in the line of the storm and is preparing for strong winds and possible flooding this weekend. The governor of Georgia has issued a mandatory evacuation order for the city of Savannah and other coastal areas.

US President Donald Trump has also declared an emergency in South Carolina but forecasters have said that the threat from Irma is expected to decrease as the storm moves northwards.

BBC NEWS