Hurricane Irma Now Cat 5 As It Heads For Eastern Caribbean

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The latest on Hurricane Irma:

11:59 p.m.

Hurricane Irma strengthened into a dangerous Category 5 storm Tuesday as it roared toward the northeast Caribbean on a path that could take it to the United States.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma had sustained winds of 175mph (280 kph) and was centered about 270 miles (440 kilometers) east of Antigua. It was moving west at 14 mph (22 kph).

The center 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.”

Irma’s center was expected to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the hurricane center said. The eye was then expected to pass about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Puerto Rico late Wednesday.

Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet (7 meters). Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as shelves emptied out across islands including Puerto Rico.

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

Residents on the U.S. East Coast were urged to monitor the storm’s progress in case it should turn northward toward Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

“This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of (Hurricane) Harvey,” Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement.

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 ahead of the storm.

Vivian Wheatley, proprietor of the Anegada Reef Hotel, planned to stay behind. She said she would stay in one of the hotel rooms and take advantage of the generator since there were no guests.

“We know it’s a very powerful (storm), and we know it’s going to be very close,” she said. “Let’s hope for the best.”

People in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico braced for blackouts 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.

Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands expected 4 inches to 8 inches (10-20 centimeters) of rain and winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph.

“This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane,” U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp warned. “It’s not time to get on a surfboard.”

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 U.S. and British Virgin islands. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Guadeloupe and Dominica.

Meanwhile in Florida, residents took advantage of the Labor Day holiday to empty many store shelves of drinking water and other supplies in advance of the storm. Also Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the state’s 67 counties to give local governments “ample time, resources and flexibility” to prepare.

3:55 p.m.

Hurricane Irma grew into a powerful Category 4 storm Monday as it approached the northeastern Caribbean and was forecast to begin buffeting the region Tuesday.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) late Monday afternoon, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said additional strengthening was expected. Irma was centered 490 miles (790 kilometers) east of the Leeward Islands and moving west at 13 mph (20 kph).

Get the latest forecast from CBS Miami | More coverage

Emergency officials warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, unleash landslides and dangerous flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet (7 meters) as the storm drew closer.

“We’re looking at Irma as a very significant event,” Ronald Jackson, executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, said by phone. “I can’t recall a tropical cone developing that rapidly into a major hurricane prior to arriving in the central Caribbean.”

The storm’s center was forecast to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the hurricane center said.

U.S. residents were urged to monitor the storm’s progress in case it should turn northward toward Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

“This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of (Hurricane) Harvey,” Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement.

In the Caribbean, the director of Puerto Rico’s power company predicted that storm damage could leave some areas of the U.S. territory 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 power company’s system has deteriorated greatly amid Puerto Rico’s decade-long recession, and the territory experienced an islandwide outage last year.

Meanwhile, the governor of the British Virgin Islands urged people on Anegada island to leave if they could, noting that Irma’s eye was expected to pass 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the capital of Road Town.

Antigua and Anguilla shuttered schools Monday, and government office closures were expected to follow.

On the tiny island of Barbuda, hotel manager Andrea Christian closed the Palm Tree Guest House. She said she was not afraid even though it would be her first time facing a storm of that magnitude.

“We can’t do anything about it,” Christian said by phone, adding that she had stocked up on food and water. “We just have to wait it out.”

Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands expected 4 inches to 8 inches (10-20 centimeters) of rain and winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello activated the National Guard, canceled classes for Tuesday and declared a half-day of work.

He also warned of flooding and power outages. “It’s no secret that the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Power Authority is deteriorated,” Rossello said.

Meteorologist Roberto Garcia warned that Puerto Rico could experience hurricane-like conditions in the next 48 hours should the storm’s path shift.

“Any deviation, which is still possible, could bring even more severe conditions to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Garcia said.

The U.S. Virgin Islands said the school year would open Friday instead of Tuesday.

Gov. Kenneth Mapp said most hotels in the U.S. territory were at capacity with some 5,000 tourists. He noted the storm was expected to pass 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of St. Thomas and warned that the island could experience sustained winds as high as 80 mph

“It’s not a lot of distance,” he said, adding: “It could affect us in a tremendous way. I’m not saying that to alarm anyone or scare anyone, but I want the Virgin Islands to be prepared.”

A hurricane warning was issued for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Martin, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and St. Barts. A hurricane watch was in effect for Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, the British and U.S. Virgin islands and Guadeloupe. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Guadeloupe and a tropical storm watch for Dominica.

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