Hurricane Ophelia rages towards Ireland: Met Eireann warns it could be as bad as Debbie, which killed 15 and broke weather records
Very high winds, flooding and structural damage predicted over next 48 hours
'People need to take this seriously' - Minister Simon Coveney
Galway, Mayo, Clare, Cork and Kerry among those with Status Red warnings
Schools told to close, and ESB on alert with winds of more than 130km/h expected Monday
EMERGENCY measures will be taken in the next 48 hours as the country braces itself for a ferocious storm comparable with Hurricane Debbie, the most powerful cyclone ever to hit Ireland.
As Hurricane Ophelia approaches, a status red severe weather warning has been issued for coastal areas with an orange alert for the rest of the country.
The National Emergency Coordination has been meeting this morning, and it heard from Met Eireann that the eye of the storm may hit the south coast before it tracks up along the west coast.
The counties expected to be hit with the highest winds will be along the south coast from Wexford to Galway and Mayo, and flooding is expected in some areas, while there are also fears of structural damage in some areas.
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney has urged the public to take the severe weather warnings seriously.
The former Defence Minister wrote on Twitter: “Anybody not taking storm Orphelia seriously should think again - I don't remember ever seeing a forecast for the south coast quite like this.”
The weather service has warned this is the strongest hurricane to form in the Atlantic since records began.
A status red weather warning has been issued by Met Éireann - its highest warning - for Galway, Mayo, Clare, Cork and Kerry.
It will come into effect at nine o'clock tomorrow morning.
A status orange warning is in place for the rest of the country.
Met Eireann’s Gavin Gallagher said: “As you can imagine this morning, there’s quite a lot going on. “It’s quite unusual to have such a strong storm system in this part of the world. It’s the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic on record in history.”
“(Met Eireann forecasters) just had a four-way conference call with the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, the National Weather Service in the US and the Met Office in the UK.”
Mr Gallagher stressed that the hurricane will downgrade to a storm by the time it hits Ireland.
Met Eireann has compared Ophelia to Debbie, which hit Ireland in 1961, killing 15 people when it brought record-breaking winds and caused severe disruption.
"It has the potential to be as bad as Debbie," said Pat Clarke of Met Eireann. "The track is pretty much consistent now. These things can take on a life of their own but it certainly has the potential to be similar [to Debbie]."
At this stage, there is strong evidence from weather forecast models that the remnants of Ophelia will track close to or over parts of Ireland, but at present, there are still a wide range of possible outcomes.
The Department of Education has advised school closures in the worst hit counties along the western seaboard, while the ESB is on standby to deal with expected outages.
Met Eireann forecasters will be tracking Ophelia's evolution in the next 24 hours, with emergency response teams still hopeful the country will escape the worst of the storm.
The US National Hurricane Center said yesterday Ophelia had become a "rare category 3 hurricane south of the Azores", making it the "sixth major hurricane of the 2017 season".
"No significant change in strength is expected today, but gradual weakening should begin tonight or Sunday. However, Ophelia is still expected to remain a powerful cyclone with hurricane force winds for the next couple of days as it approaches Ireland," it said.
The issue of red level severe weather warnings is a comparatively rare event and implies that people take action to protect themselves and/or their properties.
This could be by moving their families out of the danger zone temporarily, staying indoors, or by other specific actions aimed at mitigating the effects of the weather conditions.
The Office of Emergency Planning in the Department of Defence has taken a lead role in co-ordinating a response across State responders.
Ophelia is expected to pass Ireland tomorrow, with forecasters warning of severe disruption, coastal flooding and structural damage to buildings. People have also been warned of the risks posed by falling trees with transport infrastructure likely to be hit along the western seaboard.
Bus Eireann has already moved to cancel school bus services for students in counties Cork, Kerry, Clare, Mayo and Galway, where the storm is likely to cause most disruption. The company said it made the move to ensure the children would not be endangered in anyway. Some schools along the west coast may be forced to close because of the status red wind warning.
Environment Minister Denis Naughten yesterday warned that the country should prepare for more "very severe" storms which will "ravage through people's homes".
"You are going to see an increased frequency of extreme weather conditions like the 100-year floods happening every five or six years," Mr Naughten told the Sunday Independent.
"The climate change scientist won't relate any one particular event to climate change but the reality is we have seen in Ireland over the last decade very unusual weather incidents that would have been spread out over a much larger period up until now," he said.
The Department of Education advises that schools "should consider not opening where a Status Red weather warning related to wind is forecast to coincide with the period/s during which students and staff would be expected to be travelling to and from school.
"Whether the school should open later in the day where an improvement to the weather is forecast is a decision which should be taken in consultation with An Garda Siochana, the local authorities, school transport services and other appropriate agencies based in the school's area."
The Department said it had been informed by Bus Eireann school buses in Cork, Kerry, Clare, Mayo and Galway will not operate tomorrow due to the Status Red weather warning.