Hurricane Irma continued to fortify Tuesday as an “extremely dangerous” Category 5 storm, prompting states of emergency in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida — with the strong storm forcing evacuations from the Florida Keys.
Irma’s maximum sustained winds had increased to near 185 mph, and the storm was located about 180 miles east of Antigua, moving west at 14 mph, the National Hurricane Center said in its 2 p.m. ET advisory.
“Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Irma is forecast to remain a powerful category 4 or 5 hurricane during the next couple of days,” the NHC said.
Irma’s center was expected to move over parts of the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, and the storm’s eye was then expected to pass about 50 kilometers from Puerto Rico late Wednesday.
Fox News Senior Meterologist Janice Dean said Irma is now “one of the strongest hurricanes we have witnessed in the last decade.”
Hurricane warnings were issued for 12 island groups in the Caribbean, including the British Virgin Islands, where the governor urged those who could to flee the small island of Anegada before the storm.
Irma is the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Rita in 2005, officials said. “Puerto Rico has not seen a hurricane of this magnitude Carlos Anselmi, a National Weather Service meteorologist in San Juan, told The Associated Press.
“Florida and the Southeast U.S. should be paying close attention to the forecast and any changes over the coming days, while South Florida and the Florida Keys should be preparing for potential impacts from a dangerous Category 4 hurricane this weekend.”
The prediction for Irma remains tricky during the weekend as it approaches South Florida Saturday night into Sunday. As a trough moves into the region, the storm is expected to make a turn to the north, according to Dean.
“Florida and the Southeast U.S. should be paying close attention to the forecast and any changes over the coming days, while South Florida and the Florida Keys should be preparing for potential impacts from a dangerous Category 4 hurricane this weekend,” she said.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that all decisions made within the next couple of hours can make a difference between life and death.
Authorities warned the storm could dump up to 10 inches of rain on parts of the Caribbean, cause flash floods that were dangerous and landslides and create waves of up to 23 feet.
“This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane,” U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp warned. “It’s not time to get on a surfboard.”
While Irma’s potential effect on the U.S. mainland isn’t yet fully understood, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced a state of emergency Monday to ensure “local governments have ample time, resources and flexibility to get prepared for this dangerous storm.”
“In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best and while the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared,” Scott said in a statement.
FLORIDA GOV. RICK SCOTT DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY AHEAD OF HURRICANE IRMA
Scott triggered 100 Florida National Guard members Tuesday to assist with preparing for Irma, while officials issued mandatory evacuations for visitors and residents of the Florida Keys.
Monroe County officials said a required visitor evacuation is anticipated to start at sunrise on Wednesday. Though a time has not yet been set an evacuation for residents also will be issued.
Officials strongly encouraged tourists and residents to start evacuation plans today, and said the people leave the Keys, the less traffic they were likely to encounter.
“If ever was a storm to take in the Keys, this is it,” Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt said in a statement. “The sooner people leave, the better. ”
U.S. 1 was the only route in and out of the island chain off the southern peninsula of Florida.
Some residents across South Florida spent Labor Day stocking up on supplies if Irma nears, rather than purchasing items.
“Obviously, get ready beforehand. We’ve got food, as you can see,” shopper Jacqueline Kimbrough told WSVN of her preparations. “We have our music. We have a good time. We don’t worry about it and we pray.”
People across South Florida were spending Tuesday stocking up on supplies, causing many stories to run out of water and generators, WSVN reported.
Customers at a Costco in Miami Lakes were lined up outside the wholesale store until the moment doors opened up at 10 a.m., and lines snaked throughout the store.
Further north on Florida’s Gulf Coast, residents weren’t taking any chances, and spent Monday making sure their disaster kits are ready for whatever the storm brings.
“Definitely better now than when it is too late,” Chance Burnett told FOX 13 Tampa as he loaded cases of water bottles into his trunk.
“We’ve got a great deal of cases of water and a lot of canned foods, tuna, Chef Boyardees,” said Burnett. “And then, we’re on our way to Home Depot and we are going to stock up on flashlights and batteries.”
At Home Depot in Tampa, tarps, gas containers and generators were among the most popular items being bought by shoppers. The generator shelves were restocked on Monday morning, but were already sold out by the afternoon.
Assistant store manager Chrissy Lenze told FOX 13 the store expects a new shipment this week, and they have plenty of other supplies.
“Mostly plywood, water, flashlights, tarps for later, sandbags to prepare,” Lenze said. “We want to be the last ones to close, first ones to open during a storm.”
On Puerto Rico, which will feel Irma’s effects by Wednesday, residents braced for electricity outages after the director of the island’s power company said that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for four to six months.
Ricardo Ramos told radio station Notiuno 630 AM “some regions will have electricity [back] in less than a week.” The infrastructure of the utility has deteriorated significantly during a recession, and Puerto Ricans experienced an island-wide outage last year.
Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands anticipated 4 inches to 8 inches of rain and winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of around 60 mph.
The Category 5 storm to hit on the United States was Hurricane Andrew in 1992. An were left homeless and the storm caused more than $20 billion in the Bahamas, Florida and Louisiana. Fifty-five people were murdered.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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