Hurricane Irma puts Fla. on alert
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua
The most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history bore down on the islands of the northeast Caribbean on Tuesday night, following a path predicted to then rake Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly heading for Florida over the weekend.
At the far northeastern edge of the Caribbean, authorities on the Leeward Islands of Antigua and Barbuda cut power and urged residents to shelter indoors as they braced for Hurricane Irma’s first contact with land early today. Officials warned people to seek protection from Irma’s “onslaught” in a statement that closed with: “May God protect us all.”
The Category 5 storm had maximum sustained winds of 185 mph by early Tuesday evening, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
“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.”
Other islands in the path of the storm included the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Anguilla, a small, low-lying British island territory of about 15,000 people.
President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma is over water that is 1.8 degrees warmer than normal. The 79-degree water that hurricanes need goes 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 are usually home to warmer waters that fuel cyclones. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005’s Wilma, 1988’s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Key storm all had 185 mph winds.
The storm’s eye was expected to pass about 50 miles from Puerto Rico late today. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 60 miles from Irma’s center and tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 175 miles.
The Northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11 feet, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see towering 20-foot 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.”
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. The utility’s infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans experienced an island-wide outage last year.
Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as store shelves emptied out around Puerto Rico.