Hurricane Irma strengthened to a Category 5 storm as it made landfall in the Caribbean islands and threatens Florida and Puerto Rico. It is the second powerful hurricane to threaten the US in two weeks.
The Category 5 storm, the highest level, barreled over the Caribbean's northern Leeward Islands on Tuesday night packing maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (300 km/h).
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned that as one of the five most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in 80 years, it could be "potentially catastrophic."
The eye of the hurricane is forecast to move over parts of the northern Leeward Islands Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before hitting portions of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico later on Wednesday.
Barbuda and Antigua were the first islands hit, with powerful winds blowing off roofs and cutting phone lines as residents sought cover in homes and shelters.
The US National Hurricane Center said there was potential for severe damage should the storm make landfall over Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas and Florida.
Meteorologists have warned Irma could bring up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, trigger landslides and flash floods, and create waves up to 23 feet (7 meters) high.
The storm comes after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas as a Category 4 hurricane on August 25. The rain totaled nearly 52 inches and caused the worst flooding in Houston. At least 60 people died during the storm.
Emergency status ahead of Irma
Ahead of the latest hurricane's arrival, US President Donald Trump declared states of emergency in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and all across Florida.
On Monday, Puerto Rico activated the National Guard. Governor Ricardo Rossello also canceled school classes for Tuesday and declared a half-day of work as he warned of flooding and power outages.
"The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death," Rossello said on Tuesday. "This is an extremely dangerous storm."
Rossello has also approved a $15 million (€12.6 million) emergency relief fund "despite the economic challenges Puerto Rico is facing." The island of about 3.4 million people has 456 emergency shelters prepared to house up to 62,100 people.
An ongoing financial crisis on the island has seen the US territory's debt increase to more than $70 billion, with cutbacks in state spending, especially on health care and public transport. To help people prepare for the storm, the Puerto Rican government activated a price freeze on basic necessities, including food and water, medicines, power generators and batteries.
Shelves are left empty at a grocery store in St. Petersburg, Florida, as people prepare for the hurricane
In the Bahamas, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis ordered a mandatory evacuation of southern islands in preparation for the "monster" hurricane.
Florida takes no chances
Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency across the whole state on Monday in preparation for a possible landing this weekend.
The state ordered a mandatory evacuation of the touristy Florida Keys starting on Wednesday.
Authorities have also warned residents of Miami-Dade County to move to higher ground in anticipation of storm surges.
cw,dv/ng (AP, Reuters, AFP)