Heavy rain and historic, 185-mph winds lashed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico's northeast coast Wednesday as Hurricane Irma roared through Caribbean islands on its way to a possible devastating hit on Florida.
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever measured destroyed homes and flooded streets across a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean, passing directly over Barbuda and leaving the island of some 1,700 people incommunicado.
This is only the second time since satellites started tracking storms about 40 years ago that one maintained 185 mph winds for more than 24 hours, said Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach. The other was the massive killer typhoon Haiyan that killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in 2013.
"It's a humdinger," he said.
"This thing is a buzzsaw; I'm glad Floridians are taking it very seriously," Klotzbach said. "This is going to be a bad storm. I don't see any way out of it."
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. Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
While France received no immediate reports of casualties, 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."
By early Wednesday afternoon the center of the storm was 20 miles (35 kilometers) east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and 90 miles (150 kilometers) east of San Juan, Puerto Rico and heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).
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.
"We have to prepare for the worst," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. "If we don't, it could be devastating."
Puerto Rico's public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a deep economic crisis and the agency's director warned that some areas could be without power from four to six months because the infrastructure has already deteriorated so badly. Outages were reported in some neighborhoods well ahead of the storm, with more than 285,000 homes without power and nearly 4,500 people without water by mid-afternoon Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were in shelters along with more than 100 pets.
The federal government has stepped in, with President Donald Trump this week approving an emergency declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. That means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.
EPA officials said their biggest concerns were oil spills and power disruptions to water supply systems.
"No matter what precautions we take, the coastal flooding will impact oil tanks," said Catherine McCabe, a regional administrator.
Another concern is the 20 Superfund sites in Puerto Rico and the three in the U.S. Virgin islands, given that most are near the coast, she said. She said EPA officials in New Jersey are on standby to fly down after the hurricane passes through.
State maintenance worker Juan Tosado said he was without power for three months after Hurricane Hugo killed dozens of people in Puerto Rico in 1989.
"I expect the same from this storm," he said. "It's going to be bad."
Tourist Pauline Jackson, a 59-year-old registered nurse from Tampa Florida, puffed on her last cigarette as a San Juan hotel prepared to shutter its doors ahead of the storm.
"I'm in a hurricane here, and when I get home, I'll be in the same hurricane. It's crazy," she said.
She tried to leave ahead of the storm but all flights were sold out, and she now worries about her home in Tampa.
"When you're from Florida, you understand a Category 5 hurricane," said Jackson, who is scheduled to fly out on Friday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma's winds would fluctuate, but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it roared past Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.
By early Sunday, Irma is expected to hit Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard members by Friday and warned that Irma is "bigger, faster and stronger" than Hurricane Andrew. Andrew pummeled south Florida 25 years ago and wiped out entire neighborhoods with ferocious winds. Trump also declared an emergency in Florida and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.
Experts now worry that Irma could rake the entire Florida east coast from Miami to Jacksonville and then head into Savannah, Georgia and the Carolinas, striking highly populated and developed areas.
"This could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happens two weeks ago," said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
The mayor of Miami-Dade County said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most coastal areas as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days' worth of food and water.
The State Department authorized voluntary evacuation of U.S. diplomats and their families from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, where the storm was expected to arrive by Friday.
Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma was moving over water that was 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal. Four other storms have had winds as strong in the overall Atlantic region, but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which usually have warmer waters. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005's Wilma, 1988's Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Keys storm all had 185 mph winds.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating six islands 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 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.
The website cruisecritic.com said that 28 cruises had been canceled, shortened or had their itineraries changed as a result of the hurricane.
Also Wednesday, Tropical Storm Katia formed in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico's coast and rapidly became a hurricane. It had sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph) by the afternoon and the government of Mexico issued a hurricane watch for the coast of the state of Veracruz from Tuxpan to Laguna Verde.
Katia was expected to drift toward the coast on Thursday, according to the hurricane center. It was located about 185 miles (300 kms) north-northeast of the city of Veracruz.
And another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic became a hurricane Wednesday evening. Hurricane Jose posed no immediately threat to land but meteorologists warned the storm's path could change, according to the hurricane center. Jose had winds of 75 mph (120 kph) and was quickly strengthening.