Hurricane Irma roared into the Caribbean with record-setting force on Wednesday, shaking people in their homes on the islands of Antigua and Barbuda on a path toward Puerto Rico and possibly Florida by the weekend.
Irma, which was the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded north of the Caribbean and east of the Gulf of Mexico, passed almost directly over the island of Barbuda, according to the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami.
Authorities in the small islands of the eastern Caribbean were still evaluating the situation as the sun rose though there were widespread reports of flooding and downed trees.
Antiguan police were waiting until the winds dropped before sending helicopters to check on damage reports of damage in Barbuda. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
“We are glad so far for the good news that we have had so far,” Donald McPhail, executive director of the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority, said on Wednesday as he heard from employees around the region after hunkering down for the night at home in Antigua.
The island of Anguilla was experiencing “extremely heavy winds and rain,” according to the Disaster Management Department and there were reports of flooding, but details were not yet available.
The centre of the storm was about 25 kilometres west of St Martin and Anguilla about 8 am, the hurricane centre said. It was heading west-northwest at 26 km/h.
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.
In Barbuda, the storm ripped the roof off the island’s police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the fire station and at the community centre that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands. Midcie Francis of the National Office of Disaster Services confirmed there was damage to several homes, but said it was too early to assess the extent of damage.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 295 kph, according to the Hurricane Centre. It said winds would likely fluctuate slightly, but the storm would 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 US Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.