NASSAU, Bahamas — Tourists scrambled to evacuate from the Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas on Thursday as deadly Hurricane Irma threatened to rake the islands and continue ravaging the northern Caribbean.
The Category 5 storm — which has already been blamed for at least nine deaths — was expected to produce punishing storm surges of 15 to 20 feet across the Turks & Caicos, a low-lying British territory, and parts of southeastern and central Bahamas.
In addition, the National Hurricane Center warned of 8 to 12 inches of rain through Friday, as well as up to 20 inches in isolated areas, and the risk of rip tides and surge-related flooding.
The Bahamian government announced that it would close its international airport in the capital, Nassau — a popular tourist destination known for its beaches and coral reefs — by late Thursday ahead of urging visitors to fly out.
Officials across a string of Caribbean islands say at least one person was killed in Barbuda, five were killed in the French territory of St. Martin and three were killed in Puerto Rico. The storm also cut power to more than 1 million people in Puerto Rico, which, unlike other islands, was spared a direct hit.
At 5 p.m. ET, Irma's eye was about 40 miles from Grand Turk Island, with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, the hurricane center said.
"I guarantee you it's going to be really bad for the Turks & Caicos," said Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel.
The hurricane center predicted that Irma would remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it passed near the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas by Thursday night, before skirting Cuba on Friday night into Saturday.
It was then on track to sweep north and slam Miami and the rest of South Florida, where people were rushing to board up homes, fill cars with gasoline and find routes to safety.
"Everything is closing in on [a] worst-case scenario" for Florida, said NBC meteorologist Bill Karins, who described Irma's impact as it potentially grinds up the East Coast as "48 hours of hell." It is expected to make landfall late Monday or early Tuesday farther north in Georgia and South Carolina, NBC forecasters said.
On Thursday, business owners and residents in the Bahamas were hammering plywood against windows to protect buildings. Among the biggest concerns were access to potable water, particularly if the electricity goes out.
Cars began lining up for water early Thursday after about 100,000 gallons were distributed on Wednesday.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis had already ordered six islands in the archipelago's south to be evacuated because authorities wouldn't be able to help anyone caught in the "potentially catastrophic" wind, flooding and storm surge. People were flown to Nassau starting Wednesday in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.
In addition, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, the country's National Guard, were being deployed.
The last major hurricane to pass directly through part of the Bahamas was Matthew last October. Some residents are still rebuilding after that Category 4 storm.
Meanwhile, U.S. residents visiting Nassau said they were ready to flee before Irma could roar ashore.
Jim and Marlene Norton were scheduled to leave by Thursday night, cutting their four-day Caribbean cruise short to head back to the eastern coast of Florida, where the live.
"At this point, we're just going to board up the house and shutter everything up," Jim Norton said, adding that that his family would decide whether they would have to evacuate again when Irma strikes Florida.
"Right now, from the track we've seen, there's no place to go," he added.
Rehema Ellis and Adam Reiss reported from Nassau, Bahamas. Erik Ortiz reported from New York.