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Ahead of Irma, Miami authorities tell homeless to find shelter or be held against their will

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Updated September 08, 2017 08:20 PM EDT

Miami social workers and police officers are giving homeless people in the city a choice ahead of Hurricane Irma's imminent landfall: Come willingly to a shelter, or be held for a mental health evaluation.

As the outer parts of the storm approached the southern state on Friday, officials roamed downtwon streets looking for straggling sleepers in waterfront parks.

"We're going out and every single homeless person who is unwilling to come off the street, we are likely going to involuntarily Baker Act them," said Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust.

The authorities are invoking the "Baker Act," which is a piece of legislation that gives authorities the ability to institutionalize patients who are presenting a danger to themselves or others. It's not a power that they wield lightly, but the magnitude of the responsibility hasn't stopped them from detaining six people as of Friday afternoon.

"I am not going to sign suicide notes for people who are homeless in my community. I am just not going to do it," Book said. "That's why you have a Baker Act. It's there to protect those who can't otherwise protect themselves."

While six were institutionalized, dozens more homeless people climbed willingly into vans headed for shelters on Friday. It's thought that some 600 homeless residents of Miami remain in the streets, exposed to the storm despite the call for mandatory evacuation.

Updated September 08, 2017 02:52 PM EDT

As of the time of writing, the death toll in the Caribbean stands at 21 after Hurricane Irma blew through the region this week. That number is expected o rise as authorities move through some of the most-affected areas.

The hurricane destroyed homes, schools, stores, roads, and much more on Wednesday and Thursday as it made its way through some of the region's most famous beach paradises, such as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda, and Anguilla.

They may not have much time to do so though, as Hurricane Jose, which is now a Category 4 storm, is set to punish many areas that have only just recently been devastated.

I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to know that further damage is imminent," said Inspector Frankie Thomas of the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda.

U.S., Dutch, French, and British forces all sent ships with food and other supplies to the embattled areas.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

Hurricane Irma on Friday pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands as it kept raging across the Caribbean Sea towards Florida.

Irma had already killed at least 11 people as it struck the Turks and Caicos early that morning, downing communications there and leaving the extent of its devastation unclear.

The storm shrank from a Category 5 to a Category 4 hurricane early Friday, but it remains a potent force with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph.

The first hurricane warnings appeared in southern Florida, meanwhile, as the state prepares for what could be a devastating encounter with Irma this weekend.

Hurricane Jose is also trailing behind Irma, and some of the regions battered hardest by the earlier storm are in its expected path.

Some Twitter users on Friday voiced support for those in Irma’s path, urging them to stay safe as the storm barrels past.

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Irma raged through the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday before twisting along the northern coast of Cuba the next morning.

Cuba’s government ordered mandatory evacuations off low-lying keys off the island’s coast, moving tens of thousands of people away from vulnerable coastlines.

Irma, which is the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded, will rake Cuba’s northern coast Saturday before likely tearing into South Florida the following afternoon.

“Take it seriously, because this is the real deal,” said Maj. Jeremey DeHart, a U.S. Air Force Reserve weather officer who flew through Irma’s eye at 10,000 feet.

Forecasters are warning that Irma could next slam into metropolitan Miami’s population of 6 million people, strafing the Atlantic coast and then rocking Georgia and South Carolina.

More than a half-million people in Miami-Dade County have been ordered to leave ahead of the storm’s approach.

“It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said. “Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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