Hurricane Irma strengthened to a Category 5 storm Tuesday morning as it continues approaching the northeast Caribbean and the U.S.
Officials across the northeastern Caribbean cancelled airline flights, shuttered schools and urged people to hunker down indoors as barrelled toward the region as the Category 5 storm is expected to strengthen more before nearing land late Tuesday.
States of emergency were declared in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and all of Florida while people on various Caribbean islands boarded up homes and rushed to find last-minute supplies, forming long lines outside supermarkets and gas stations.
Irma’s maximum sustained winds increased to near 280 kph early Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was centred about 515 kilometres east of the Leeward Islands and moving west at 22 kph.
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Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 25 centimetres of rain, cause landslides and dangerous flash floods and generate waves of up to 7 metres.
“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 storm’s centre was expected to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the hurricane centre said.
Residents on the U.S. East Coast were urged to monitor the storm’s progress in case it should turn northward toward Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.
“This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of (Hurricane) Harvey,” Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement.
In the Caribbean, hurricane warnings were issued for 12 island groups, including the British Virgin Islands, where the governor urged people to evacuate the tiny island of Anegada if they could ahead of the storm.
Vivian Wheatley, proprietor of the Anegada Reef Hotel, planned to stay behind. She said she would stay in one of the hotel rooms and take advantage of the generator since there were no guests.
“We know it’s a very powerful (storm), and we know it’s going to be very close,” she said. “Let’s hope for the best.”
People in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico braced for electricity outages after the director of the island’s power company predicted that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for four to six months. But “some areas will have power (back) in less than a week,” Ricardo Ramos told radio station Notiuno 6:30 a.m. The utility’s infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans experienced an island wide outage last year.
Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands expected 10-20 centimetres of rain and winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph.
A hurricane warning was posted for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Martin, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and St. Barts, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. and British Virgin islands. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Guadeloupe and Dominica.
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Meanwhile in Florida, residents took advantage of the Labor Day holiday Monday to empty many store shelves of drinking water and other supplies in advance of the storm, which could affect the state by the weekend. Also Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the state’s 67 counties to give local governments “ample time, resources and flexibility” to prepare.
In the Caribbean, the governor of the British Virgin Islands urged people on Anegada island to leave if they could, noting that Irma’s eye was expected to pass 56 kilometres from the capital of Road Town.
Antigua and Anguilla shuttered schools Monday, and government office closures were expected to follow.
On the tiny island of Barbuda, hotel manager Andrea Christian closed the Palm Tree Guest House. She said she was not afraid even though it would be her first time facing a storm of that magnitude.
“We can’t do anything about it,” Christian said by phone, adding that she had stocked up on food and water. “We just have to wait it out.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello activated the National Guard, cancelled classes for Tuesday and declared a half-day of work.
He also warned of flooding and power outages. “It’s no secret that the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Power Authority is deteriorated,” Rossello said.
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Meteorologist Roberto Garcia warned that Puerto Rico could experience hurricane-like conditions in the next 48 hours should the storm’s path shift.
“Any deviation, which is still possible, could bring even more severe conditions to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Garcia said.
The U.S. Virgin Islands said the school year would open Friday instead of Tuesday.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp said most hotels in the U.S. territory were at capacity with some 5,000 tourists. He noted the storm was expected to pass 64 kilometres north of St. Thomas and warned that the island could experience sustained winds as high as 80 mph
“It’s not a lot of distance,” he said, adding: “It could affect us in a tremendous way. I’m not saying that to alarm anyone or scare anyone, but I want the Virgin Islands to be prepared.”