Irma strengthens into Category 5 hurricane, nears Caribbean
SAN JUAN (AP):
Hurricane Irma grew into a dangerous Category 5 storm, the most powerful seen in the Atlantic in over a decade, and roared towards islands in the northeast Caribbean yesterday on a path that could eventually take it to the United States.
The US National Hurricane Center said Irma was a "potentially catastrophic" storm with maximum sustained winds of 180 mph (285 kph) as it bore down on the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. It was centred about 225 miles (365 kilometres) east of Antigua in the late morning and moving west at 14 mph (22 kph).
The centre said there was a growing possibility that the storm's effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track: "Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place."
Irma's centre was expected to move over portions of the northern Leeward Islands late yesterday and early today, the hurricane centre said. The eye was then expected to pass about 50 miles (80 kilometres) from Puerto Rico late today.
Irma is the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Rita in 2005, officials said.
"Puerto Rico has not seen a hurricane of this magnitude in almost 100 years," Carlos Anselmi, a National Weather Service meteorologist in San Juan, told The Associated Press.
Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 12 inches (31 centimetres) of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet (7 metres). Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalise all preparations as shelves emptied out across islands, including Puerto Rico.
"The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death," Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said. "This is an extremely dangerous storm."
'May God protect us all'
Hurricane warnings were issued for 12 Caribbean island groups, including Antigua, where buzzing chainsaws and pounding hammers could be heard yesterday. Crews delivered water to neighbouring Barbuda, one of the islands closest to the hurricane's path.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the AP he was confident Barbuda would weather the storm because its shelter was built with reinforced concrete and equipped with a backup generator.
"I am satisfied that at a governmental level we have done everything that is humanly possible to mitigate against the effects or the potential effects of this storm," he said. "What is really required now is for Antiguans and Barbudans ... to follow the warnings and to act appropriately so that we do not end up with any serious casualties or any fatalities."
Antigua's airport announced it was closing, with an ominous statement advising visitors and residents to protect themselves from the "onslaught" of the storm: "May God protect us all."