Most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record set to batter Caribbean islands
British holidaymakers in the Caribbean and Florida have been urged to comply with any evacuation orders as the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane on record approaches.
The category five hurricane is expected to slam into the Leeward Islands of Antigua and Barbuda on Wednesday, before following a path along the Greater Antilles toward the US.
Six islands in the Bahamas are being evacuated on Wednesday, while o fficials 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.
The hurricane, which is now at the the highest classification possible, could reach the Florida Keys over the weekend, leading authorities to declare a state of emergency.
It is expected it could bring maximum winds of 185mph, according to the National Hurricane Centre.
Meanwhile Puerto Rico, which handles many transfer flights to the Caribbean, has also declared a state of emergency.
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.
The UK Foreign Office (FO) has advised Britons in the hurricane's path to monitor its website and follow any advice issued by local officials as the historic storm progresses through the region.
Officials warned that Irma will bring hazardous conditions to Puerto Rico and north-eastern parts of the Caribbean from Wednesday and to Florida on Friday evening.
In a statement the FO said: "The authorities in Puerto Rico and Florida have declared a state of emergency. You should follow the advice of the local authorities and any evacuation orders."
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."
Briton Carolyne Coleby, who runs a guest house on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, said locals were desperately trying to secure their houses with boards and remove any potential debris from outside spaces.
She told the Press Association: "The winds are starting to pick up and the clouds are coming in.
"It's going to be the strongest hurricane ever to cross the Atlantic. I've no idea what to expect."
In the Bahamas, holidaymakers at luxury resorts were told they will be moved away from coastal areas to emergency shelters.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was flying residents out of the six islands in the south in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.
Newlyweds Paul and Lorraine Phipps were celebrating their two-week honeymoon at a Sandals resort on the archipelago as forecasters raised Irma's classification.
Mr Phipps, from Essex, told the Press Association: "With the Bahamas being laid back there is no panic on the resort, the resort management team are meeting daily to discuss contingencies and will communicate once decisions have been made.
"During the hurricane we will either be moved to a building away from the beach front or moved to a centre downtown."
The US's National Hurricane Centre described Irma as "potentially catastrophic".
Taylor Trogdon, a scientist for the organisation, tweeted: "I am at a complete and utter loss for words looking at Irma's appearance on satellite imagery."
Meanwhile, Nick Merianos, a meteorologist with American television network Weather Nation, tweeted on Tuesday night: "Codrington about to experience a direct hit from #HurricaneIrma. Sint Maarten and Anguilla is next. Devastation is inevitable."
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.