Rains from monster Hurricane Irma begin hitting Puerto Rico

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Rains from monster Hurricane Irma begin hitting Puerto Rico
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.

A fisherman in Haiti, brings his boat ashore as a precaution against Irma. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

“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, a new tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico’s coast. Tropical Storm Katia had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph) by the early afternoon and the hurricane center said it could become a hurricane before it approaches the coast of Veracruz state. Katia was located about 175 miles (280 kms) north of the city of Veracruz.

And another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic was expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night. Tropical Storm Jose’s maximum sustained winds had increased to near 70 mph (110 kph). The storm was centered about 1,135 miles (1,825 kilometers) east of the Lesser Antilles and was moving west near 13 mph (20 kph).

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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Hurricane Irma roared into the Caribbean with record force early Wednesday, its 185-mph winds shaking homes and flooding buildings on a chain of small islands along a path toward Puerto Rico, Cuba and Hispaniola and a possible direct hit on densely populated South Florida.

The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded passed almost directly over the island of Barbuda, causing widespread flooding and downing trees. 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.

The regional authority for Guadeloupe and neighboring islands 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 but 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.”

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said the twin-island nation appears to have weathered its brush with Hurricane Irma with no deaths, though he noted that the government had only done a preliminary assessment of Barbuda. There were widespread reports of property damage but he says the public and government had prepared well for the storm.

“We in Antigua have weathered the most powerful hurricane ever to storm its way through the Caribbean,” the prime minister said. “And we have done so with stunning results.”

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 65 miles (110 kilometers) east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and about 140 miles (225 kilometers) east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).

As the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 2 a.m., phone lines went down under heavy rain and howling winds that sent debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.

The storm ripped the roof off the island’s police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating six islands in the south 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 price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm,” Minnis said.

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.”

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.

The storm seemed almost certain to hit the United States by early next week.

“You’d be hard pressed to find any model that doesn’t have some impact on Florida.” said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

In Florida, people stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 National Guard members were to report for duty Friday when the storm could be approaching the area. On Monday, Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida’s 67 counties.

Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma’s path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade County said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most coastal areas.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days’ worth of food and water.

The Hurricane Center in Miami said hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles (85 kilometers) from Irma’s center and tropical storm-force winds extended 175 miles (280 kilometers).

Also Wednesday morning, a new tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico’s coast. Tropical Storm Katia had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph) with some strengthening forecast over the next two days. But the hurricane center said Katia was expected to stay offshore through Friday morning.

And another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic was expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night. Tropical Storm Jose’s maximum sustained winds had increased to near 60 mph (95 kph). The storm was centered about 1,255 miles (2,020 kilometers) east of the Lesser Antilles and was moving west near 13 mph (20 kph).

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)