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Hurricane Irma has left widespread damage throughout the Caribbean, leaving Barbuda "uninhabitable" and destroying much of the island of St. Martin. (Photo: @AmyGehrt/Twitter)

Florida Warned 'Don't Let Your Guard Down' as Irma Roars for Direct Hit

After devastating Caribbean, historic hurricane expected to bring catastrophic winds and flooding to low-lying south Florida

Julia Conley, staff writer

Despite media reports of weakening winds, weather experts warned South Florida residents to remain vigilant and prepare for the worst as Hurricane Irma approaches the region, headed north from the Caribbean.

The National Hurricane Center called the storm "extremely dangerous" even though it's been downgraded from a Category 5 to a Category 4 storm, with winds currently rushing at 155 miles per hours.

The hurricane could make landfall in South Florida by early Sunday, with a potential direct hit in the densely-populated and low-lying Miami and Ft. Lauderdale areas. According to FEMA, many of the area's 4.5 million residents live in flood-hazard zones, and Miami lies only about six feet above sea level, leaving the city highly vulnerable to storm surges which are expected to reach five to ten feet.

Meanwhile, officials in Turks and Caicos assessed the damage after Irma ripped through the islands on Thursday night. Dozens of roofs were ripped off homes by howling winds, flooding was reported, and Grand Turk was coping with an island-wide blackout after utility poles were demolished.

Haiti, whose fragile infrastructure was ill-prepared for the hurricane, appeared to have avoided the worst, but officials warned that flooding risks and damaged infrastructure remain a threat.Flooding and power outages were seen in the impoverished country, which experienced hundreds of fatalities when it was hit by Hurricane Matthew last year, as well as a cholera outbreak following the storm.

A confirmed nineteen people have been killed since Irma first hit the Caribbean region on Tuesday, but that number could still rise. Thousands have been left homeless, and the financial costs from the storm, according to estimates, now range in the hundreds of billions.

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