Category 5 Hurricane Irma has become one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic, and is threatening to slam into Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with “potentially catastrophic” force on Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said.
It’s too early to tell whether the storm will affect the US mainland, but current forecast tracks show it could turn toward Florida over the weekend.
Irma was churning west Tuesday evening in the Atlantic with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph– well above the 157 mph threshold for a Category 5 – about 130 miles east of Antigua and Barbuda, the hurricane center said.
The last storm with sustained winds that strong in the Atlantic was 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, which weakened before it brushed Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and crossed Florida. Its Atlantic wind speeds are behind only 1980’s Hurricane Allen, which peaked at 190 mph at sea.
Irma’s forecast track currently has it near or over Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis, and Anguilla by early Wednesday, and the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon.
Preparations to protect life and property in those areas “should be rushed to completion”, the hurricane center said in a 5 p.m. ET advisory.
“We could see storm surges of seven to 11 feet – that’s certainly life-threatening – and very, very heavy flooding rainfall” in the far northeastern Caribbean islands as well as winds that could cause catastrophic damage near the eye wall, the hurricane center’s Michael Brennan said.
Computer models show the system possibly near the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Thursday and Friday, and Cuba on Friday and Saturday – and potentially turning north toward Florida by the weekend.
The Dominican Republic issued a hurricane warning Tuesday evening that included coastal cities from Cabo Engaño to the northern border with Haiti.
Forecasters’ most immediate concerns are for the people of the northeastern Caribbean, Brennan said.
“Anguilla, all the way toward [Antigua and] Barbuda, all the way up even toward the British Virgin Islands [are] in grave danger of an eye wall hit at [at least] 150 mph – that devastates the island, no matter what island it is,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Tuesday.
Those islands are under hurricane warnings, as are Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, Saba, St Eustatius, St Martin/St Maarten, and
Hurricane warnings are issued to areas that are expected to experience hurricane-force winds (at least 74 mph).
On Antigua, home to roughly 80,000 people, fishermen used machines to lift their boats onto docks and other residents flocked to stores to stock up on food and other
supplies ahead of the storm, video broadcast by ABS TV Antigua and distributed by Reuters shows.
The US Virgin Islands, with about 100,000 people, declared a state of emergency Tuesday and ordered the National Guard into active service.
John Klein, owner of White Bay Villas & Seaside Cottages on Jost Van Dyke island in the British Virgin Islands, told CNN they were rebooking the guests.
“We have backups for (our utilities), but
in a storm of this magnitude it’s not best for the guests to be there because they may get stuck,” he said.