Tuesday 24 October 2017

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
A picture taken on September 5, 2017 shows a view of the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, with the wind blowing ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
A picture taken on September 5, 2017 shows a view of the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, with the wind blowing ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
In this geocolor image captured by GOES-16 and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Irma, a potentially catastrophic category 5 hurricane, moves westward, (NOAA via AP)
This Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Irma nearing the eastern Caribbean. Hurricane Irma grew into a powerful Category 4 storm Monday. (NOAA via AP)

Ellie Cullen, Ryan Wilkinson and Tess De La Mare

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."

A picture taken on September 5, 2017 shows a view of the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, with the wind blowing ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
A picture taken on September 5, 2017 shows a view of the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, with the wind blowing ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
Employees of the Mercure Hotel fill sand bags on the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, as part of the preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 on the beach in Orient Bay, on the French overseas island of Saint-Martin.
Night view of the city of Cap-Haitien, in the north of Haiti, 240 km from Port-au-Prince, on September 5, 2017.
A couple watch the sunset from a seafront as hurricane Irma approaches Puerto Rico in Fajardo on September 5, 2017.
Very long checkout lines at Costco as some people waited up to 8 hours to check in, shop and leave in preparation for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in North Miami.
Empty boxes of produce at Costco as customers purchased all the product on September 5, 2017 in Miami.
Costco ran out of water as people shop to prepare for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in North Miami.
A woman walks next to the Mapou River, in Shadaa neighborhood, in Cap-Haitien, in the north of Haiti, 240 km from Port-au-Prince, ahead of Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017.
A picture taken on September 5, 2017 shows a view of the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, with the wind blowing ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
A man rides past a boarded up house as part of preparations ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017, in the French overseas island of Guadeloupe.
Men sail on Mapou Riverin Shadaa neighborhood, in Cap-Haitien, in the north of Haiti, 240 km from Port-au-Prince, ahead of Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017.
People put boards on their windows as part of preparations for arrival of Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in Orient Bay, on the French overseas island of Saint-Martin.
An employee of the Mercure Hotel installs sand bags in a ground floor room on the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, as part of the preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Irma
An employee of the Mercure Hotel pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with sand bags on the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, as part of the preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Irma
A picture taken on September 5, 2017 in Grand Case, on the French overseas island of Saint-Martin, shows people on a street in front of a house thas is boarded up as part of the preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
Men cover the windows of a auto parts store in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A man uses a cable to secure the roof of his home in preparation for Hurricane Irma, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
An employee restocks bottled water on bare shelves as customers look on at a Publix grocery store, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in Surfside, Fla. Wielding the most powerful winds ever recorded for a storm in the Atlantic Ocean, Hurricane Irma bore down Tuesday on the Leeward Islands of the northeast Caribbean on a forecast path that could take it toward Florida over the weekend. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Joseph, Jr., right, 15, of St. Petersburg, bends down to carry sandbags to his family's vehicle at Lealman Community Park, in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, as residents prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Lara Cerri/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
People buy materials as they prepare for Hurricane Irma, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People shop in a hardware store as they prepare for Hurricane Irma, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Members of the Civil Defense prepare their gear ahead of Hurricane Irma, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas
A member of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) monitors the trajectory of Hurricane Irma in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

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."

irma 007.jpg
In this geocolor image captured by GOES-16 and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Irma, a potentially catastrophic category 5 hurricane, moves westward, (NOAA via AP)

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.

CARIBBEAN (5).jpg
Joseph, Jr., right, 15, of St. Petersburg, bends down to carry sandbags to his family's vehicle at Lealman Community Park, in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, as residents prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Lara Cerri/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

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.

AFP_S58KZ.jpg
An employee of the Mercure Hotel installs sand bags in a ground floor room on the Baie Nettle beach in Marigot, as part of the preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Irma

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.

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