Irma continued to explode into a powerful storm Tuesday afternoon, with winds increasing to 185 mph, National Hurricane Center forecasters said in a 2 p.m. advisory.
As the storm continued to track westward, islands in its path raced to complete last minute preparations. The Leeward Islands are expected to get hit with “catastrophic” winds tonight, forecasters said, with the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico slammed tomorrow. In Puerto Rico, the governor asked President Donald Trump to declare a state of emergency, while the electric company warned Irma’s fierce winds could leave the island without power for four to six months.
As the hurricane churns closer to the U.S. coast, its path becomes more certain, with South Florida, particularly the Keys, increasingly likely to take a hit. Tropical storm force winds could arrive as early as Friday. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for all 67 counties and has ordered all 7,000 members of the state’s National Guard to report to duty on Friday. Highway tolls across the state will be lifted at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez also declared a state of emergency for Miami-Dade County Tuesday afternoon and said evacuations could begin as early as Wednesday on barrier islands and along the coast. Monroe County issued a mandatory evacuation of all residents beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“This is a powerful storm which poses a serious threat to our area,” Gimenez said. “I would rather inconvenience residents on this occasion than suffer any loss of life.”
From Puerto Rico to Florida, people are keeping a close eye on Hurricane Irma, a monster storm that threatens to plow through the Caribbean and perhaps deliver a devastating blow to the U.S.
People are preparing for the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Rita in 2005, and one that comes on the heels of Harvey ravaging Texas less than two weeks ago.
WHERE IS IRMA HEADED?
Hurricane Irma grew into a dangerous Category 5 storm on Tuesday and roared toward islands in the northeast Caribbean.
The U.S. 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.
“I hear it’s a Cat 5 now and I’m terrified,” Antigua resident Carol Joseph said as she finished her last trip to the supermarket before seeking shelter. “I had to come back for more batteries because I don’t know how long the current will be off.”
Other islands in the path of the storm included the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Anguilla, a small, low-lying British island territory of about 15,000 people.
The Northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11 feet, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see towering 20-foot waves later in the week, forecasters said.
“This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane,” U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp warned. “It’s not time to get on a surfboard.”
The National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
“The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “A lot of infrastructure won’t be able to withstand this kind of force.”
People rushed to stores in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, emptying shelves of food and water as worry set in ahead of Hurricane Irma’s expected impact Wednesday on the US territory.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in preparation.
Those living on the commonwealth braced for the hurricane’s potentially devastating winds and deluge, fearing if the Category 5 storm knocks out power from the bankrupt island’s weakened electrical system, it may take weeks or months before power is restored.
“It (power) is something absolutely necessary, especially due to Puerto Rico’s weather. We need to have the A/C or a fan on all night,” a woman told CNN affiliate WAPA.
Last month, the director of Puerto Rico’s power utility, Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez, said several factors have made the island’s electric system “vulnerable and fragile,” WAPA reported.
“Hurricane Irma’s magnitude compares to no other weather system in the recorded history of Puerto Rico,” Rosselló wrote. “Thus, the required assistance is crucial to lessen its impact on the island.”
Antigua’s airport has closed with an ominous statement from local authorities as Hurricane Irma approaches the Caribbean island.
The statement from the V.C. Bird International Airport says it is shutting down Tuesday and advises all visitors and residents of the two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda to seek protection from the “onslaught” of the Category 5 storm.
It closes with: “May God protect us all.”
The center of the storm was expected to start passing north of Antigua and near or over Barbuda on Tuesday night.