Islands in the Caribbean have made last-minute preparations for Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade, with officials warning of its “potentially catastrophic” effects.
The category five hurricane, the highest possible level, has sustained wind speeds reaching 300km/h (185mph).
It made landfall in the Leeward Islands and will move on towards Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
In the US, Florida’s Key West area has ordered a mandatory evacuation.
The eye of the storm hit the island of Barbuda, which has a population of around 2,000 people at about 02:00 local time (06:00 GMT).
Winds gusted at 250km/h, before the recording equipment broke and no further readings were received.
In Key West, visitors will be required to leave on Wednesday morning, with residents due to follow in the evening, and the international airport will halt all flights.
“We’re emphatically telling people you must evacuate. You cannot afford to stay on an island with a category five hurricane coming at you,” said Martin Senterfitt, the emergency operations centre director in Monroe County in Florida.
The Bahamas is also launching the “largest evacuation in its history”, according to Prime Minister Hubert Minnis. Plans have been made to fly residents from the south-east islands to the safer capital, Nassau, on Wednesday.
Closer to the storm, thousands of people have been evacuated from at-risk areas. Residents have flocked to shops for food, water, and emergency supplies, and in several locations goods were already in short supply.
Airports have closed on several islands, popular holiday destinations, and authorities have urged people to go to public shelters.
US President Donald Trump has declared a state of emergency for Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, mobilizing federal disaster relief efforts for those areas.
In Puerto Rico, a 75-year-old man died during preparations for the storm, which has been described by Governor Ricardo Rossello as “something without precedent”.
Storm surges, life-threatening winds and torrential rainfall are expected along the Leeward Islands, which include Antigua, Barbuda and Anguilla.
Alison Strand, originally from Staffordshire in the UK, is on the island of Anguilla. She said her family had spent the last several hours fortifying her home on the coast, which “will be the first house hit by the storm”.
“Our house is 5m (15ft) above sea level and we’re expecting 8m swells, so we’re just crossing our fingers,” she said. “We are expecting to lose our wooden roof.”
Gary Randall, head of the Blue Waters Resort on Antigua’s north coast, said: “I wasn’t that nervous yesterday, but today I’m nervous.”
Staff had boarded up windows, stripped trees of coconuts to stop them damaging property and secured anything that could become a hazard.
Carolyne Coleby, in Montserrat, said: “Irma is about to hit us full force.”
“I am a goat farmer and have to consider my livestock. Last night I moved 20 goats to a backhouse at a hostel I manage which is on slightly higher ground,” she said.
“I am hoping the galvanised roof of the backhouse doesn’t fly off. I can’t go to the shelter because I can’t leave my animals.”
The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Irma was moving at a speed of 24km/h (15mph), saying that the storm was “potentially catastrophic”.
There are hurricane warnings for:
- Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis
- Saba, St Eustatius and Sint Maarten
- Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy
- The British Virgin Islands
- The US Virgin Islands
- Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra
- Dominican Republic, for the northern region
The islands’ populations range from about 2,000 each on Barbuda, Saba and Culebra, to 3.5 million in Puerto Rico.
Haiti, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the south-eastern Bahamas are on hurricane watch.
Parts of Texas and Louisiana are dealing with the damage done by Hurricane Harvey in late August. But it is not yet clear what impact Hurricane Irma might have on the US mainland.
The mainland has not been hit by two category four hurricanes in one season since the storms were first recorded in 1851.
A third tropical storm, Jose, has formed further out in the Atlantic behind Irma, and is expected to become a hurricane by later on Wednesday, according to the US National Hurricane Center.
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