Hurricane Irma grew into a dangerous Category 5 storm, the most powerful seen in the Atlantic in over a decade, and roared toward islands in the northeast Caribbean Tuesday on a path that could eventually take it to the United States.
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. It was centered about 225 miles (365 kilometers) east of Antigua in the late morning and moving west at 14 mph (22 kph).
The center said there was a growing possibility that the storm’s effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track.
If it stays on track and reaches the Florida Straits, the water there is warm enough that the already “intense” storm could become much worse with wind speeds potentially reaching 225 mph, warned Kerry Emanuel, an MIT meteorology professor.
“People who are living there (the Florida Keys) or have property there are very scared, and they should be,” Emanuel said.
Irma’s center was expected to move over portions of the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the hurricane center said, warning of “a life-threatening storm surge and large breaking waves” that could raise water levels up to 7 to 11 feet above normal.
The storm’s eye was then expected to pass about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Puerto Rico late Wednesday.
Irma is the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Rita in 2005, officials said.
“Puerto Rico has not seen a hurricane of this magnitude in almost 100 years,” Carlos Anselmi, a National Weather Service meteorologist in San Juan, told The Associated Press.
Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 12 inches (31 centimeters) of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet (7 meters). Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as shelves emptied out across islands including Puerto Rico.
Hurricane warnings were issued for 12 Caribbean island groups including Antigua, where buzzing chain saws and pounding hammers could be heard widely on Tuesday. Crews delivered water to neighboring Barbuda, one of the islands closest to the hurricane’s path. (AP)