Hurricane Irma: Most powerful Atlantic hurricane in a century on route to US
- Irma hits Caribbean islands with heavy rain and howling 185mph wind
- Extent of casualties unknown at this time
- Emergencies declared in Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands
- Six Bahamas islands to be evacuated
- Waves of up to 20ft expected
- Pope's plane rerouted
Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, churned across northern Caribbean islands on Wednesday with a potentially catastrophic mix of fierce winds, surf and rain, en route to a possible Florida landfall at the weekend.
Irma is expected to become the second powerful storm to thrash the US mainland in as many weeks but its precise trajectory remained uncertain. Hurricane Harvey killed more than 60 people and caused damaged estimated as high as $180 billion when it hit Texas late last month.
The eye of Irma, a Category 5 storm packing winds of 185 miles per hour (295 km per hour), moved away from the island of Barbuda and toward the island of St. Martin, east of Puerto Rico, early on Wednesday, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami reported. It could hit Florida on Saturday.
"We are hunkered down and it is very windy ... the wind is a major threat," said Garfield Burford, the director of news at ABS TV and Radio on the island of Antigua, south of Barbuda. "So far, some roofs have been blown off."
Most people who were on Antigua and Barbuda were without power and about 1,000 people were spending the night in shelters in Antigua, according to Burford.
"It's very scary ... most of the islands are dark so it's a very, very frightening," he said.
The eye of the hurricane went over Barbuda, which has a population of about 1,600 people, according to ABS radio.
"All hearts and all prayers and all minds go out to the Barbudans at this time because they experienced the full brunt," a radio host said on the station early on Wednesday. Public relations professional Alex Woolfall said on Twitter he was hiding underneath a concrete stairwell as the storm neared St. Maarten.
"Still thunderous sonic boom noises outside and boiling in stairwell. Can feel scream of things being hurled against building," he said. "Okay I am now pretty terrified so can every non-believer, atheist & heretic please pray for me."
The amount of damage and the number of casualties were not known early on Wednesday. A 75-year-old man died while preparing for the storm in Puerto Rico's central mountains, police said.
Several other Leeward Islands, including Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, as well as the US and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were under a hurricane warning.
"Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the Hurricane Center said, warning that Irma "will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge and rainfall hazards" to those islands.
Along the beachfront of Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, work crews scrambled to cover windows with plywood and corrugated metal shutters along Avenida Ashford, a stretch of restaurants, hotels and six-story apartments.
"I am worried because this is the biggest storm we have seen here," said Jonathan Negron, 41, as he supervised workers boarding up his souvenir shop.
The NHC said Irma ranked as one of the five most powerful Atlantic hurricanes during the past 80 years and the strongest Atlantic basin storm ever outside the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello urged the 3.4 million residents of the US territory to seek refuge in one of 460 hurricane shelters in advance of the storm and later ordered police and National Guard troops to begin evacuations of flood-prone areas in the north and east of the island.
"This is something without precedent," Rossello told a news conference.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis was travelling to Columbia from Italy on Wednesday when his plane was forced to change route due to Hurricane Irma.
A Vatican official said the plane had planned to fly over Puerto Rico but will instead shift south and fly over Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad.
US President Donald Trump approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, mobilizing federal disaster relief efforts, the White House said.
Authorities in the Florida Keys called for a mandatory evacuation of visitors to start at sunrise on Wednesday, and public schools throughout South Florida were ordered closed, some as early as Wednesday.
Residents of low-lying areas in densely populated Miami-Dade County were urged to move to higher ground by Wednesday as a precaution against coastal storm surges, three days before Irma was expected to make landfall in Florida.
Several tiny islands in the resort-heavy eastern Caribbean were the first in harm's way.
Hurricane watches were in effect for Guadeloupe, Haiti, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas.
Airlines canceled flights to the region, and American Airlines added three extra flights to Miami from San Juan, St. Kitts and St. Maarten.
Residents of Texas and Louisiana were still recovering from Harvey, which struck Texas as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25. It dumped several feet of rain, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, and displaced more than 1 million people.
The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11ft, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see towering 20ft waves later in the week, forecasters said.
"This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane," US Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp warned. "It's not time to get on a surfboard."
Bahamas prime minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating the six islands in the south because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the "potentially catastrophic" wind, flooding and storm surge.
People there were being flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.
"The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm," Mr Minnis said.
Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello said: "The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we've ever seen. 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 up to four to six months. The utility's infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans had an island-wide outage last year.
Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalise all preparations as store shelves emptied around Puerto Rico., with Mr Rossello saying:
"The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death. This is an extremely dangerous storm."
In Florida, people also stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.
Governor Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 more National Guard members were to report for duty on Friday when the storm could be approaching.
On Monday, Mr Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida's 67 counties.
Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma's path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade county said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county's coastal areas.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation centre and urged residents to have three days of food and water.
Meanwhile, holidaymakers have been urged to comply with any evacuation orders.
Six islands in the Bahamas are being evacuated while officials in the Leeward Islands have reportedly cut power and urged residents to seek shelter in a statement that ended with "May God protect us all."
As the hurricane approached, Sir Richard Branson refused to leave his private Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, but admitted "almost nothing" can withstand a storm of Irma's force.
Antigua airport will be closed on Wednesday and San Juan airport, the busiest in Puerto Rico, has cancelled about 40% of its flights in response to the hurricane.
As a result, thousands of travellers had their holiday plans thrown into chaos as airlines were forced to ground or divert flights.
British Airways sent an empty aircraft to bring customers back early - the full flight of 326 passengers touched down in the UK on Tuesday evening.
Writing in an online blog, Sir Richard said the eye of the storm was "heading straight for Necker".
He added: "On Necker Island we have constructed really strong buildings (with hurricane blinds) that should be able to handle extreme weather pretty well, though with a Category 5 hurricane almost nothing can withstand it.
"We had some lovely guests staying on Necker Island who have cut their trip short for safety reasons, and another group of guests have also postponed.
"I will be on Necker alongside our team, as I have been on the three times we have had hurricanes over the past 30 years."
Irma comes hot on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which caused devastation and flooding in the states of Texas and Louisiana and left at least 66 people dead.