Hurricane Irma has made landfall in the Carribbean, bringing with it life-threatening winds and heavy rainfall.
Warnings were in place for parts of the Leeward Islands, the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, in preparation for the storm, which according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) was the strongest ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean.
The storm first hit the islands of Barbuda and Antigua, sending debris flying as residents huddled in their homes and government shelters. Irma then ploughed towards Puerto Rico, with the storm’s centre expected to pass near or just north of the island on Wednesday evening.
It was expected to hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti at around 2pm EST on Thursday and Cuba in the early hours of Friday. The storm posed an increasing threat to South Florida, with the NHC saying it could reach the US by 2am on Monday morning.
“Dangerous Hurricane Irma heading for the Leeward Islands,” the centre said on Monday. “Preparations should be rushed to completion as tropical storm-force winds are expected to arrive in the hurricane warning area by late Tuesday.”
A Category 5 hurricane – the strongest possible on the Saffir Simpson wind scale – means sustained winds greater than 157 mph with “extremely catastrophic damage”, including major structural damage to buildings and “complete roof failure” on many residences and industrial buildings.
Roofs, trees and other heavy objects are at risk of being lifted by the storm.
In preparation for the hurricane, the government of Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency. Around 3.4 million people live in the US territory, which has a fragile economy. Only 456 emergency shelters have been opened, enough to house 62,100 people.
As frantic residents stockpiled emergency supplies, the Government froze prices on necessities, including food and water, medicines, power generators and batteries.
The executive director of the state power authority, Ricardo Ramos, told the Telemundo TV station that the power grid was so vulnerable from lack of investment that parts of the territory could be without power for three to four months.
Frantic residents stockpiled emergency supplies as the storm headed for land (National Hurricane Center)
“We’re preparing for the worst-case scenario,” he said.
Irma also threatens the US East Coast and Florida, which has declared a state of emergency. The hurricane centre expects Irma to reach southern Florida on Saturday.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said on Twitter late on Monday he had spoken to US President Donald Trump, who he said “offered the full resources of the federal government as Floridians prepare for Hurricane Irma.”
The NHC cautioned that it was too early to forecast the storm’s exact path or what effects it might have on the continental United States, but warned of likely effects to hit some areas by later this week.
Hurricane Irma – in pictures
“There is an increasing chance of seeing some impacts from Irma in the Florida Peninsula and the Florida Keys later this week and this weekend. In addition, rough surf and dangerous marine conditions will begin to affect the southeastern US coast by later this week,” the centre said.
Irma will be the second powerful hurricane to thrash the United States and its territories in as many weeks.
Residents of Texas and Louisiana are still reeling from the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas as a Category 4 hurricane on 25 August and dumped several feet of rain, destroying thousands of homes and businesses.
Reuters contributed to this report