UPDATE: 5:00 p.m. Wednesday
Hurricane Irma continued to slice through the Caribbean islands Wednesday afternoon, striking Puerto Rico with historic 185 mph winds and bearing down on the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
A scientist from the National Hurricane Center in Miami said that Irma is the first Atlantic Ocean hurricane to maintain 185 mph winds over a 24-hour period. The Category 5 storm is moving through the Atlantic at 16 mph and appears likely to hit the Dominican at some point on Thursday.
The southeastern part of the Bahamas chain also lies directly in Irma’s path, and the hurricane is projected to hit the southern edge of Florida on Sunday afternoon.
UPDATE: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday
Hurricane Irma battered islands in the Lesser Antilles Wednesday morning and continued on a collision course with Puerto Rico. The Category 5 storm flooded a fire station and interrupted the electricity in St. Barthelemy. It hit Barbuda with sustained winds that registered 118 mph and gusted up to 151 mph.
Four of the most solid buildings on St. Martin have been destroyed, according to French officials, and an advisory from the National Hurricane Center indicates that the southeast Bahamas and Turks & Caicos face storm surges of 15 to 20 feet. Puerto Rico lies directly in Irma’s path, and Thursday could bring the storm to the north edge of the Dominican Republic and southern isles of the Bahamas.
UPDATE: 12:00 p.m. Wednesday
UPDATE: 8.30 a.m. Wednesday
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua (AP) — Hurricane Irma roared into the Caribbean with record force early Wednesday, its 185-mph winds shaking homes and flooding buildings on a chain of small islands along a path toward Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and a possible direct hit on South Florida.
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded passed almost directly over the island of Barbuda, causing widespread flooding and downing trees. France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity.
The regional authority for Guadeloupe and neighboring islands said the fire station in Saint Barthelemy was flooded by more than 3 feet of water and no rescue vehicles could move. The government headquarters on Saint Martin was partially destroyed.
There were no immediate reports of casualties but the minister for overseas territories, Annick Girardin, said “We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn’t want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites … We’re preparing for the worst.”
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said the twin-island nation appears to have weathered its brush with Hurricane Irma with no deaths, though he noted that the government had only done a preliminary assessment of Barbuda. There were widespread reports of property damage but he says the public and government had prepared well for the storm.
“We in Antigua have weathered the most powerful hurricane ever to storm its way through the Caribbean,” the prime minister said. “And we have done so with stunning results.”
In the Cayman Islands, the National Weather Service on Wednesday morning urged residents to continue to monitor the progress of Irma, as it is still expected to influence local weather conditions this weekend.
The center of the storm was about 15 miles west of St. Martin and Anguilla about 8 a.m. Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. It was heading west-northwest at 16 mph.
As the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 2 a.m., phone lines went down under heavy rain and howling winds that sent debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.
The storm ripped the roof off the island’s police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma’s winds would fluctuate but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two. The most dangerous winds, usually nearest to the eye, were forecast to pass near the northern Virgin Islands and near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.
Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma was moving over water that was 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal. The 79 degree (26 Celsius) water that hurricanes need went about 250 feet 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 usually have warmer waters. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005’s Wilma, 1988’s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Keys storm all had 185 mph winds.
The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see normal tide levels rise by as much as 11 feet, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see surge of 20 feet and higher waves later in the week, forecasters said.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating 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 in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country’s history.
“The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm,” Minnis said.
The U.S. 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 eye of the storm was expected to rip westward on a path taking it a little north of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.
The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see 10 inches of rain, with as much as 20 inches in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
The storm seemed almost certain to hit the United States by early next week.
“You’d be hard pressed to find any model that doesn’t have some impact on Florida.” said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
In Florida, people stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.
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. On Monday, Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida’s 67 counties.
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 coastal areas.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days’ worth of food and water.
The Hurricane Center in Miami said hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles from Irma’s center and tropical storm-force winds extended 175 miles.
Also Wednesday morning, a new tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico’s coast. Tropical Storm Katia had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph with some strengthening forecast over the next two days. But the hurricane center said Katia was expected to stay offshore through Friday morning.
And another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic was expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night. Tropical Storm Jose’s maximum sustained winds had increased to near 60 mph. The storm was centered about 1,255 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and was moving west near 13 mph
Hurricane Irma strengthened to historic proportions and continued its trajectory through the Lesser and Greater Antilles on Tuesday, upgraded to a Category 5 storm. As it churns toward the eastern Caribbean, multiple nations are bracing for impact over the next 24 hours.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Irma had a maximum sustained wind speed of 185 mph, exceeded only by the 190 mph winds of Hurricane Allen in 1980. It is the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin and outside of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
Several places in the Leeward Islands chain were expecting Irma to make landfall by Wednesday morning, and Puerto Rico is under a hurricane warning for Wednesday night. The Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and Cuba may also be hit as the storm arcs northwest to Florida.
The Cayman Islands are now squarely outside of the storm’s expected path. Avalon Porter, a meteorologist for the Cayman Islands National Weather Service, expects them to stay that way.
“It’s now moving west,” he said of Irma. “We expect it to kind of move more towards the west or northwest, which will basically take it up over the north of the islands and just north of the north coast of Cuba. If it keeps along that track, we would start seeing the effects of it on late Friday night.”
Cayman can expect rough weather over the weekend even as it dodges the worst effects of the storm.
“We expect mainly cloudy conditions, gusty winds, rough seas,” said Mr. Porter.
“The winds would start off on Friday out of the north and back to the southwest by Saturday evening. We expect the heaviest weather activity and the strongest winds to be over the Sister Islands. It could get pretty rough along the west coast. Seven Mile Beach may see some erosion.”
The conditions are more dire for some of Cayman’s neighbors. The sparsely populated island of Anegada in the British Virgin Islands chain staged an evacuation on Tuesday, and Monroe County, Florida, which includes the Keys, has issued a mandatory evacuation for all visitors starting Wednesday. Residents are likely to be evacuated Wednesday or Thursday.
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Miami-Dade County’s mayor said Tuesday that residents and visitors should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county’s coastal areas as Hurricane Irma heads toward Florida, The Associated Press reported.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening.
Evacuation will begin Wednesday morning for special needs residents. All Miami-Dade County offices will be closed Thursday and Friday.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida Air and Army National Guard on Tuesday to assist in preparation for impact from Hurricane Irma. All 7,000 members of Florida’s National Guard will report for duty Friday in advance of the storm’s anticipated arrival this weekend.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have both issued a state of emergency as Irma approaches.
A spokesman for Jet Blue corporate communications said they do not expect to see service to Cayman interrupted, but they also said they are monitoring the storm along with everyone else.
Cayman Airways announced Tuesday that it will waive the change fees for any customers who booked flights on or before Sept. 5 and are booked for travel between the Cayman Islands and Miami, Tampa or Havana between Sept. 5 and Sept. 12.
Alan Neesome, general manager for Sol Petroleum in the Cayman Islands, said he does not expect to see any fuel supply disruptions. Sol has multiple supply options beyond the U.S. Gulf Coast, he said, and a vessel is due to load in St. Lucia in the next few days and should be unaffected by Irma.
Increased storm activity
Tropical Storm Jose is forming right behind Irma and may continue on the same initial path before veering off into the Atlantic.
For McCleary Frederick, director of Hazard Management Cayman Islands, the increased storm activity is just a reminder that it’s never too early to be prepared.
“This is why we do all the drills,” he said. “This is why we do all the public education and awareness. We’re living out in the middle of the ocean in Hurricane Alley. While it’s been a few years we haven’t been affected, we always have that risk of a storm affecting us during the hurricane season.”
Mr. Frederick stressed that concerned residents can find information on Facebook and Twitter in addition to HMCI’s website, www.caymanprepared.gov.ky.
The organization suggests how people can be prepared and supplied for any crisis in storm season, and it also lists the many approved hurricane shelters that dot the Cayman Islands.
“If the storm was headed this way, there would be a time we’d have activated the shelters and put that information out to the public,” he said. “The message would’ve been the same. Prepare your property, prepare yourselves and your family. Make sure you’ve got all your stuff in order. We actually shouldn’t have to be doing this now.
“We just had Harvey pass by, and it’s been all over the media the destruction that that’s caused. Now we have one of the largest storms ever, bearing down on the Caribbean.”