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5.6 mn Floridians ordered to evacuate as Irma closes in: emergency officials

© Graphics/AFP | Southeast United States braces for Irma, Cuba hit with strong winds

MIAMI (AFP) - 

Florida has ordered 5.6 million people to evacuate as massive Hurricane Irma menaces the southeastern US state, according to its Division of Emergency Management.

Irma regained strength as a Category 5 storm late Friday as it made landfall on the Camaguey Archipelago of Cuba, and is now swirling about 275 miles (440 kilometers) away from Miami packing maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour.

Irma is expected to strike the Florida Keys late Saturday and Sunday before moving inland, according to the National Hurricane Center, and many residents have joined a mass exodus amid increasingly dire warnings to leave.

As it roared across the Caribbean the monster storm claimed at least 19 lives, devastating a series of tiny islands like Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin -- where 60 percent of homes were wrecked and looting broke out -- before slamming into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Warning that Irma would be worse than Hurricane Andrew -- which killed 65 people in 1992 -- Florida's governor Rick Scott had said all of the state's 20.6 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate.

© 2017 AFP