Hurricane Irma makes first landfall in Caribbean bearing 295 km/h winds

The most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history has made its first landfall in the islands of the northeast Caribbean.

The U.S. National Weather Service said the eye of Category 5 Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 1:47 a.m. ET. Residents said over local radio that phone lines went down as the eye passed.

On the nearly 28,000-hectare island, people who live in low-lying areas were staying with friends and relatives on higher ground or sleeping in churches, schools and community facilities built to withstand hurricanes. None of the shelters have yet been tested by Category 5 winds, however.

Many homes in Antigua and Barbuda are not built on concrete foundations or have poorly constructed wooden roofs that are susceptible to wind damage. Other islands in the path of the storm included the Virgin Islands and Anguilla, a small, low-lying territory of about 15,000 people.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Irma was maintaining Category 5 strength with sustained winds near 295 km/h and heading west-northwest.

It’s then expected to hit Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly heading for Florida over the weekend.

Authorities on Antigua and Barbuda earlier cut power and urged residents to shelter indoors as they braced for Hurricane Irma’s first contact with land early Wednesday.

Officials warned people to seek protection from Irma’s “onslaught” in a statement that closed with: “May God protect us all.”

Hurricane Irma

Grocery store shelves in the Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami, Fla., were mostly barren as of late Tuesday. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

“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.”

Emergencies were declared in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate the residents of six islands at the southern end of the island chain.

Taylor Trogdon, a senior scientist with the NHC’s storm surge unit, tweeted: 

Puerto Rico vulnerable

Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma is over water that is 1 C warmer than normal. The 26 C water that hurricanes need goes 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 are usually home to warmer waters that fuel cyclones. Hurricane Allen hit 305 km/h in 1980, while 2005’s Wilma, 1988’s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Key storm all had 298 km/h winds.

The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen.– Puerto Rico Gov.  Ricardo Rossello

The storm’s eye was expected to pass about 85 km from Puerto Rico late Wednesday. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 85 km from Irma’s center and tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 280 km.

The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 3.5 metres, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see towering 6.1-m 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.”

Guadeloupe Hurricane Irma

The skies darkened in Point-a-Pitre on the French overseas island of Guadeloupe, as islanders braced themselves for the arrival of Hurricane Irma Wednesday. (Helene Valenzuel/Getty)

‘Like nothing we’ve ever seen’

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating the 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 starting Wednesday in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country’s history.

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.”

The director of the island’s power company has warned that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for about a week and other, unspecified areas for four to six months. 

Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as store shelves emptied out around Puerto Rico.

“The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death,” Rossello said. 

Irma tuesday pm

The National Hurricane Center shows the predicted travel path for Hurricane Irma. (National Hurricane Center)

Tandem hurricane possible

The eye of the storm was expected to roar westward on a path taking it north of millions of people in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, but meteorologists warned that it could still cause life-threating storm surges, rains and mudslides.

The storm seemed almost certain to hit the United States by early next week.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 National Guard members were to report for duty Friday when the storm could be approaching the area.

Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma’s path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade county said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county’s coastal areas.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. 

A new tropical storm also formed in the Atlantic on Tuesday, to the east of Irma. The hurricane centre said Tropical Storm Jose was about 2,140 km east of the Lesser Antilles late Tuesday and its maximum sustained winds had risen to 85 km/h.

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