PHOTO COURTESY OF YOUTUBE.COM
By ANIKA KENTISH
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua (AP) — Hurricane Irma roared into the Caribbean with record force early Wednesday, its 185-mph winds shaking homes and flooding buildings on a chain of small islands along a path toward Puerto Rico, Cuba and Hispaniola and a possible direct hit on densely populated South Florida.
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded passed almost directly over the island of Barbuda, causing widespread flooding and downing trees. France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity.
The regional authority for Guadeloupe and neighboring islands said the fire station in Saint Barthelemy was flooded by more than 3 feet (1 meter) of water and no rescue vehicles could move. The government headquarters on Saint Martin was partially destroyed.
There were no immediate reports of casualties but the minister for French overseas territories, Annick Girardin, said “We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn’t want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites … We’re preparing for the worst.”
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said the twin-island nation appears to have weathered its brush with Hurricane Irma with no deaths, though he noted that the government had only done a preliminary assessment of Barbuda. There were widespread reports of property damage but he says the public and government had prepared well for the storm.
“We in Antigua have weathered the most powerful hurricane ever to storm its way through the Caribbean,” the prime minister said. “And we have done so with stunning results.”
Hurricane Irma had maximum winds of 185 mph (295 km/h) as of 11 a.m. Wednesday and was producing dangerous storm surge and heavy rain. The center of the storm was about 65 miles (110 kilometers) east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and about 140 miles (225 kilometers) east of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
It was heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).
As the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 2 a.m., phone lines went down under heavy rain and howling winds that sent debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.
The storm ripped the roof off the island’s police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma’s winds would fluctuate but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two. The most dangerous winds, usually nearest to the eye, were forecast to pass near the northern Virgin Islands and near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.
The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see normal tide levels rise by as much as 11 feet (3.3 meters), while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see surge of 20 feet (6 meters) and higher waves later in the week, forecasters said.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating 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 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.
The U.S. 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.
Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Danica Coto in Puerto Rico; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Michael Weissenstein in Havana, Cuba; Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.