As Hurricane Irma roars across the Caribbean, people have begun to leave the Florida Keys amid fears the storm will reach the U.S. coast. Officials in Florida began mandatory evacuations Wednesday as the “potentially catastrophic” hurricane batters the northern Leeward Islands — and if that weren’t enough to contend with, another weather system directly behind Irma is now forecast to become a hurricane later on Wednesday.
Hurricane Irma is already the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, generating winds of up to 185 miles per hour. The National Hurricane Center described the latest storm to threaten the U.S. mainland as “potentially catastrophic,” and predicted it will make landfall somewhere in Florida over the weekend. It said “preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.”
The hurricane has already begun hitting islands in the Caribbean, with the northern Leeward Islands first to be hit Wednesday morning. The hurricane is then predicted to hit the Virgin Islands later in the day and track close to Puerto Rico Wednesday night.
Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, said the island has been preparing for a week for the storm: “We are hoping for the best, but of course preparing for the worst,” he told CNN.
London resident Alex Woolfall, who is in St. Maarten, the southern Dutch half of St. Martin, has been tweeting increasingly frantic updates as the storm batters the island.
Early video images from St. Martin suggest the Hurricane has caused significant damage:
On Wednesday morning, the Category 5 hurricane passed directly over the Caribbean island of Barbuda, clipping its sister island of Antigua, and lashing both with strong winds and heavy rain. The islands of Anguilla and St. Kitts & Nevis are next in its path, and authorities in the southern Bahamas say mandatory evacuations will take place Wednesday.
In the coming days the storm is likely to also hit the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, and Cuba before its predicted landfall in southern Florida.
Officials in the Florida Keys say they expect to announce a mandatory evacuation for visitors starting Wednesday, and for residents starting Thursday. In South Florida, people are already making preparations, with store shelves raided for supplies before the storm reaches them, and long queues of cars seen outside gas stations.
Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for all 67 counties in the state Monday, saying: ““Hurricane Irma is a major and life-threatening storm and Florida must be prepared. The White House has promised “the full resources of the federal government,” according to Scott.
If people didn’t have enough to worry about with one hurricane coming in off the Atlantic, the National Hurricane Center announced that it expected Tropical Storm Jose to become a hurricane by Wednesday night.
The Center also announced that Tropical Storm Katia has formed in the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday morning, with the storm forming off the coast of Mexico with sustained winds nearing 40 miles per hour (64 kph). The National Hurricane Center said those winds could strengthen in the coming days.