The most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history made its first landfall on the islands of the northeast Caribbean early Wednesday, roaring along a path pointing to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly heading for Florida over the weekend.
The eye of Hurricane Irma passed over the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda around 2 a.m. ET, bringing heavy rain and howling winds that sent debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.
'I think we're going to get hurt.'— Douglas Harris, U.S. Virgin Islands
The storm knocked down power lines and ripped the roof off the police station in Barbuda, forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community centre that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between the islands and destroyed at least one anemometer — the device used to measure wind speeds — according to the weather-monitoring branch of NASA.
Many homes in Antigua and Barbuda, which has a population of some 94,000, are not built on concrete foundations or have poorly constructed wooden roofs. Residents of low-lying areas moved to higher ground and storm shelters, but few if any of the shelters had yet been tested by Category 5 winds.
By midmorning, there were reports of extensive damage but no deaths, according to Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
To the north and west, the storm also knocked out all electricity on the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy. Video on social media from the island of St. Maarten, a Dutch territory about 100 kilometres northwest of Barbuda, showed a tropical landscape almost entirely obscured by high winds and rain.
Slashing rain and grey-black clouds arrived on the U.S. Virgin Islands early this morning, according to resident Douglas Harris.
"I think we're going to get hurt," Harris told CBC's World Report.
"All you can do is board up, store up — food, water, et cetera — and pray."
Nearby in the British Virgin Islands, Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, posted a blog entry saying he and friends "experienced a night of howling wind and rain as Hurricane Irma edges ever closer." He owns small Necker Island in the BVI and planned to move to a wine cellar as the storm hits. "The atmosphere is eerie but beautiful."
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 295 km/h, according to the NHC. It said winds would likely fluctuate slightly, but the storm would remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two.
U.S. President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.
Fuel for hurricanes
Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma was moving over water that was 1 C warmer than normal. The 26 C water that hurricanes need went about 80 metres deep, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private forecasting service Weather Underground.
Four other storms have had winds as strong in the overall Atlantic region, but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which usually have warmer waters. Hurricane Allen hit 305 km/h in 1980, while 2005's Wilma, 1988's Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Keys storm all had 297 km/h winds.
The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see normal tide levels rise by as much as 3.3 metres, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see surge of six metres and higher waves later in the week, forecasters said.
Surges that high could cover entire islands, according to one U.S. official.
"Most of this island chain is only three to five feet [roughly one to 1.5 metres] above sea level," said Martin Senterfitt, director of Monroe County Emergency Management in Florida.
"We could be looking at wave heights that would put the ocean over the islands."
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating six islands in the south because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the "potentially catastrophic" wind, flooding and storm surge. People there would be flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.
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