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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 23 February, 2019
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People urged to take shelter as the most powerful Atlantic storm in history starts to hit

Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and possibly Florida will be hit by the hurricane.

Updated 12.22 pm

APTOPIX Hurricane Irma Hurricane Irma, a potentially catastrophic category 5 hurricane, moves westward. Source: NOAA via AP

THE MOST POWERFUL Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history bore down on the islands of the northeast Caribbean last night, following a path predicted to then rake Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly heading for Florida over the weekend.

At the far northeastern edge of the Caribbean, authorities on the Leeward Islands of Antigua and Barbuda cut power and urged residents to shelter indoors as they braced for Hurricane Irma’s first contact with land early today.

Officials warned people to seek protection from Irma’s “onslaught” in a statement that closed with: “May God protect us all.”

The category 5 storm had maximum sustained winds of 295 km/h, according to the US National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Antigua and Barbuda Hurricane Irma Residence make last minute repairs on their rooftops to make it safe ahead of the hurricane. Source: Johnny Jno-Baptiste via PA Images

“I hear it’s a Cat 5 now and I’m terrified,” Antigua resident Carol Joseph said as she finished her last trip to the supermarket before seeking shelter. “I had to come back for more batteries because I don’t know how long the current will be off.”

Other islands in the path of the storm included the US and British Virgin Islands, and Anguilla, a small, low-lying British island territory of about 15,000 people.

The monster storm forced the plane carrying Pope Francis to Colombia to change its flightplan.

“Because of a hurricane, the Holy Father’s flight will take a more southern route and will enter the airspaces of three other countries,” Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago, the Vatican said in a statement today.

Pope Francis’s trip, his 20th since his papacy began four years ago, will see him plead for a “stable and lasting” peace in a divided country.

United States

US President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate the residents of six islands at the southern end of the island chain.

Trump also tweeted:

Watching Hurricane closely. My team, which has done, and is doing, such a good job in Texas, is already in Florida. No rest for the weary!

Tweet by @Donald J. Trump Source: Donald J. Trump/Twitter

Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma is over water that is 1 degree Celsius warmer than normal. The 26 degree Celsius water that hurricanes need goes about 80 metres deep, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private forecasting service Weather Underground

IRMA FORECAST A category 5 storm roars toward the northeast Caribbean. Source: AP

Four other storms have had winds as strong in the overall Atlantic region but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which are usually home to warmer waters that fuel cyclones.

Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005′s Wilma, 1988′s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Key storm all had 185 mph winds.

Leaders’ responses

The storm’s eye was expected to pass about 85 kilometres from Puerto Rico later today. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 85 kilometres from Irma’s centre and tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 280 kilometres.

The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11 feet, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see towering 20-foot waves later in the week, forecasters said.

Puerto Rico Hurricane Irma Cyber School Supply employee Christopher Rodriguez installs wood panels on windows in preparation for Hurricane Irma. Source: Carlos Giusti via AP

“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 would be flown to Nassau starting today 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,” Minnis said.

Puerto Rico get ready

The National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.

“The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said. “A lot of infrastructure won’t be able to withstand this kind of force.”

Puerto Rico Hurricane Irma Residents walk past a storefront, paneled with steel sheets in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico. Source: Carlos Giusti via AP

The director of the island’s power company has warned that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for about a week and other, unspecified areas for four to six months. The utility’s infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans experienced an island-wide outage last year.

Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalise all preparations as store shelves emptied out around Puerto Rico.

“The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death,” Rossello said. “This is an extremely dangerous storm.”

No directly storm-related deaths were reported by last night but a 75-year-old man died in the central Puerto Rico mountain town of Orocovis after he fell from a ladder while preparing for the hurricane, police said.

The eye of the storm was expected to roar westward on a path taking it north of millions of people in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, but meteorologists warned that it could still cause life-threatening storm surges, rains and mudslides.

The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see 10 inches of rain, with as much as 20 inches in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.

The storm seemed almost certain to hit the United States by early next week.

“You’d be hard pressed to find any model that doesn’t have some impact on Florida,” said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2017

Read: Florida declares state of emergency as Hurricane Irma becomes a Category Five

Read: ‘A bigger heart than anyone I know’: Families pay tribute to Hurricane Harvey victims

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