UPDATED: Hurricane Irma strengthens to Category 5, max winds of 180 mph

UPDATED 1 p.m. TUESDAY: The maximum sustained wind speeds of Hurricane Irma have increased to 185 mph, making it the second-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, tied with the “Labor Day” storm of 1935, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The highest maximum sustained wind speeds in an Atlantic storm were achieved by Hurricane Allen in 1980.

UPDATED 11 a.m. TUESDAY: Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm and has reached maximum sustained winds of 180 mph, which makes it the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin and outside of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Only seven hurricanes in recorded history of the Atlantic have reached sustained winds of 180 mph, and three of them have occurred in the last 12 years.

UPDATED 7 a.m. TUESDAY: The National Hurricane Center has upgraded Irma to a Category 5 hurricane with maximum sustained wind speeds of 175 mph. It is reportedly the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic since Felix in 2007. Irma is continuing on its westward track toward Cuba and Florida.

UPDATED 10 p.m. MONDAY: The National Hurricane Center upgraded Irma to a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained wind speeds of 140 mph. It is expected to strengthen over the next 48 hours.

ORIGINAL: Several countries are preparing for a serious impact from Hurricane Irma. An advisory from the U.S. National Hurricane Center on Monday showed Hurricane Irma heading toward the Leeward Islands and potentially striking Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba at some point over the next few days. The Cayman Islands still appears to be on the outer fringe of the storm.

A hurricane warning was issued for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Martin, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and St. Barts, The Associated Press reported.

Shamal Clarke, a meteorologist with the Cayman Islands National Weather Service, said Monday afternoon that residents of Cayman should continue watching the news to see where Hurricane Irma is tracking. But if it keeps its current trajectory, the storm will likely pass without major impact.

“Based on information from the hurricane center, they expect it to strengthen before it interacts with the land over the eastern Caribbean,” he said. “By the time it makes landfall over the lesser Antilles, they expect it to be a Category 4, and once it starts moving over land, they expect the wind speed to drop.”

If Hurricane Irma does grow to a Category 4 hurricane, that would mean it has reached wind speeds between 131 and 155 mph. The storm is slated to first travel over the Leeward Islands at about 8 a.m. Wednesday, and if its path holds true, it would move over Puerto Rico later in the day.

The British Virgin Island Bank Association issued a public notice Monday that all of its member banks will be closed on Tuesday after midday. Orlando Smith, the premier of the British Virgin Islands, issued a statement Monday afternoon alerting his constituents that they should be careful with Irma approaching.

“Forecasters predict that the center of Irma will approach the northern Leeward Islands late on Tuesday and could move near or over the BVI, Wednesday afternoon or evening bringing destructive winds and rain in the area,” Mr. Smith said. “Forecasters have also warned that any island that experiences the eyewall could face catastrophic damage.

“We cannot say with certainty whether or not the BVI will experience these effects, but every indication is that we will have some level of impact. Our best option is to be ready.”

Ricardo Rosello, the governor of Puerto Rico, declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard on Monday in preparation for the storm’s arrival.

“Despite the economic challenges Puerto Rico is facing, the approved budget has $15 million for the emergency fund,” Mr. Rosselló said in a statement, according to Reuters.

By Thursday morning, the storm could be passing over the northern edge of the Dominican Republic. Current models show it impacting Cuba on Saturday morning. At that point, Irma could arc northwest and hit Florida, but Mr. Clarke said it is difficult to project a hurricane five days into the future.

If the storm continues its present path, he said, Cayman residents will not have much to fear.

Hurricane Irma as of Sept. 4.

“At the moment, the models indicate some gusty winds and not too much out of the usual,” he said. “It’s still a little bit far out, five days, and at some point over the next 24 hours the updates should show more of the impact it will have on us. As of now, it looks just like gusty winds and rainfall.”

After Irma, there could be another hazard lurking. There is an elongated area of low pressure hundreds of miles west of the Cape Verde Islands, and the National Hurricane Center projects it as having a 30 percent chance of developing into a cyclone by Wednesday.

That same projection indicates there is a 70 percent chance of a cyclone developing by the weekend.

“That one seems like it moves north over the Atlantic,” said Mr. Clarke. “It doesn’t seem like it gets over the Caribbean at the moment. It just kind of makes that turn a bit earlier than Irma.”

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.