Hurricane Irma poised to lash US east coast and Caribbean
Hurricane Irma has been strengthened into a dangerous Category 5 storm as it roars toward the northeast Caribbean on a path that could take it to the United States.
The US National Hurricane Centre said Irma had sustained winds of 280kph and was centred about 440km east of Antigua. It was moving west at 22kph.
A spokesman for the centre said there was a growing possibility that the storm's effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track.
"Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place," the centre said.
Irma was expected to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late yesterday or early today. The eye is expected to pass about 80km from Puerto Rico late today.
Experts warned the storm could dump up to 25cm of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 7m.
Shelves emptied at shops in Puerto Rico as officials began evacuations.
Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello said: "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."
Residents on the US east coast were urged to monitor the storm's progress in case it should turn northward toward Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.
Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said: "This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the east coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of Hurricane Harvey."
Officials across the north-east Caribbean have cancelled flights, closed schools and urged people to shelter indoors.
States of emergency were declared in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and all of Florida while people on various Caribbean islands boarded up homes and rushed to find last-minute supplies, forming long lines outside stores and filling stations.
"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."
In the Caribbean, hurricane warnings were issued for 12 island groups, including the British Virgin Islands, where the governor urged people to evacuate the tiny island of Anegada if they could.
People in Puerto Rico braced for electricity outages after the director of the island's power company predicted that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for four to six months.
But "some areas will have power [back] in less than a week", Ricardo Ramos told radio station Notiuno 630 AM.
The utility's infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans experienced an island-wide outage last year.
A hurricane warning was posted for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Martin, Saba, St Eustatius, St Maarten and St Barts, Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin islands.
Antigua's airport closed yesterday with an ominous statement from local authorities.
The statement from the VC Bird International Airport said it was shutting down and advised all visitors and residents of the two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda to seek protection from the "onslaught" of the Category 5 storm.
It closed with: "May God protect us all."