Hurricane Irma struck the small chain of eastern Caribbean islands with record 185-mph winds on Wednesday a path toward Puerto Rico before possibly making a direct hit on Florida's densely populated east coast.
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded passed almost directly over the tiny island of Barbuda, causing widespread flooding and downing trees before ripping off roofs and cutting power on the French/Dutch island of Saint Martin/St Maarten as well as destroying a weather station on Saint Barthélemy (St Barts).
In Florida, people stocked up on drinking water, and other supplies with long lines at gas stations.
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.
The latest models show Irma moving up Florida's east coast like a buzzsaw, brushing Miami with its outer hurricane force winds before making landfall around the Palm Beach barrier islands, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private forecasting service Weather Underground.
"It looks like being very, very close to Miami. There’s a good chance that the core of or Irma will stay offshore," he said, with Miami experiencing weaker 80-100 mph winds on the weak left side of the hurricane, not the 140 mph category 4 force winds at the core. “Miami is going to get six foot storm surge with big waves on top of that,” he added.
Winds extend 185 miles
Forecasters warned that even if the eye misses Miami the impact will be felt across a wide region of the state which is only 100 miles wide. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles (85 kilometers) from Irma's center while tropical storm-force winds extended 185 miles (280 kilometers).
"It's huge in terms of horizontal size. It's bigger than Andrew (1992) and Wilma (2005)," said meteorologist Judith Curry, founder of Climate Forecast Applications Network which provides weather and climate tools to clients including Florida Power & Light, the main electricity company in South Florida.
Rainfall will be heavy, she added, though South Florida will not be flooded the way Houston was. "It'll be wet but It's moving fast so it's not going to be like Harvey," she said.
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 Masters.
In intensity, Irma’s 185 mph winds rank only behind Hurricane Allen in 1980, which had winds of 190 mph. It is tied for second most intense with Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane which destroyed Henry Flagler's railroad and produced a storm surge of 18 to 20 feet above sea level.
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.
"The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we've ever seen," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. "A lot of infrastructure won't be able to withstand this kind of force."
IN PHOTOS: The destructive path of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, as Florida gets ready
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 20 miles (35 kilometers) east-northeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and about 90 miles (150 kilometers) east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).
The eye of the storm was expected to rip westward on a path taking it a little north of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.
The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, with as much as 20 inches (50 centimeters) in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
French authorities 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.
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.
This article including material from the Associated Press