Powerful Hurricane Irma hits first Caribbean islands

(National Hurricane Center)

The most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history made its first landfall in the islands of the northeast Caribbean early Wednesday, roaring along a path pointing to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly heading for Florida over the weekend.

The eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 1:47 a.m., the U.S. National Weather Service said. Residents said over local radio that phone lines went down. Heavy rain and howling winds raked the neighboring island of Antigua, sending debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.

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

In Barbuda, the storm ripped the roof off the island's police station forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community center 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 185 mph (295 kph), according to the Hurricane Center. 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.

"I hear it's a Cat 5 now and I'm terrified," Antigua resident Carol Joseph said Tuesday 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."

On the 108-square-mile (280-square-kilometer) island, people who live in low-lying areas were staying with friends and relatives on higher ground or sleeping in churches, schools and community facilities built to withstand hurricanes. None of the shelters had yet been tested by Category 5 winds, however.

Many homes in Antigua and Barbuda are not built on concrete foundations or have poorly constructed wooden roofs.

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.

Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma was moving over water that was 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal. The 79 degree (26 Celsius) water that hurricanes need went about 250 feet (80 meters) deep, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private forecasting service Weather Underground.