Mass evacuations are underway today after Hurricane Irma slammed into the Caribbean with 185mph winds as aid agencies braced for a ‘major humanitarian response’.
America’s National Hurricane Center said Irma had strengthened into a dangerous Category 5 storm as it made its first landfall in islands of northeast Caribbean on a path that could take it to the United States – causing thousands to start panic buying and preparing to evacuate.
This morning, the eye of the ‘potentially catastrophic’ hurricane – estimated to be the size of France – lashed Barbuda just hours after officials warned people to seek protection from Irma’s ‘onslaught’ in a statement that closed with: ‘May God protect us all.’
Heavy rain and howling winds from the hurricane – measured as the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean – also raked Antigua, sending debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters. The French islands Saint-Barthelemy and Saint-Martin have also been hit this morning.
U.S. President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate the residents of six islands at the southern end of the island chain.
Experts say Irma is now so powerful it is registering on devices designed to detect earthquakes. Scientists picked up the background noise of winds causing trees to move and crashing ocean waves on their earthquake-detecting seismometers.
It is expected to become the second powerful storm to thrash the U.S. mainland in as many weeks after devastating Hurricane Harvey. A mandatory evacuation is under way in the Florida Keys.
In addition to Irma, Tropical Storm Jose has now formed behind it in the open Atlantic and is expected to develop into a hurricane. A third tropical storm – Katia – has also formed in the Gulf of Mexico with winds but is expected to stay offshore until Friday morning.
The Red Cross this morning said it is preparing for ‘a major humanitarian response’.
‘The forecast as it stands right now is extremely worrying,’ said Walter Cotte, the agency’s Regional Director for the Americas. ‘We are anticipating major impacts on a number of islands, and we are preparing to respond to needs that may arise. We are especially worried that Irma could affect areas that have been suffering with severe rainfall in the past months.
WHEN WILL IRMA HIT?
Leeward Islands: Late Tuesday to Wednesday. Tropical storm-force winds start later Tuesday
Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands: Wednesday to early Thursday
Dominican Republic/Haiti: Thursday to early Friday
Turks and Caicos: Late Thursday to Friday
Bahamas: Friday to this weekend
Cuba: Friday to this weekend
Southeast United States: This weekend into early next week, beginning in south Florida on Saturday
‘One of the main challenges is going to be logistical, given the isolation of some the islands. We need to ensure a reliable channel for relief efforts in the aftermath of the hurricane.’
Four other storms have had winds that strong in the overall Atlantic region, but they have been in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico where the usually warmer waters fuel tropical cyclones. Experts say Irma’s strength is a result of unusually warm water for that part of the Atlantic.
The center said there was a growing possibility that the storm’s effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track: ‘Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place.’
So far, a state of emergency has been called in the state and a mandatory evacuation is under way in the Florida Keys. Schools there are also cancelled until further notice.
Governor Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 more National Guard members were to report for duty on Friday when the storm could be approaching.
Pictures showed people rushing to stock up on drinking water, protective wooden boards for their windows and other supplies.
Meanwhile, tourists have had their Caribbean holiday plans thrown into chaos as Hurricane Irma forces airlines to ground or divert flights.
Antigua airport will be closed on Wednesday and San Juan airport, the busiest in Puerto Rico, has cancelled about 40 per cent of its flights in response to the hurricane.
British Airways sent an empty aircraft to the region to bring customers back early – the full flight of 326 passengers touched down in the UK on Tuesday evening.
It also cancelled a flight from the UK heading to Antigua and then on to Tobago.
Pope Francis flew out of Italy today headed for Colombia, with his plane forced to change route because of Irma. The Alitalia aircraft had been expected to fly over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, but will instead shift south and cross the islands of Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad, a Vatican official said.
Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet.
PLANE CARRYING POPE IS FORCED TO DIVERT TO AVOID IRMA
The plane carrying Pope Francis to Colombia has been forced to change its flight plan to avoid a run-in with monster Hurricane Irma.
‘Because of a hurricane, the Holy Father’s flight will take a more southern route and will enter the airspaces of three other countries,’ Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago, the Vatican said.
The special Alitalia flight carrying the head of the world’s Roman Catholics to Latin America set off from Rome shortly after 11am and was originally scheduled to arrive at 4.30pm local time in Bogota.
The Vatican did not say whether the changes to the flight plan would affect the arrival time.
Pope Francis’s trip, his 20th since his papacy began four years ago, will see him plead for a ‘stable and lasting’ peace in a divided country just emerging from a 50-year war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as shelves emptied out across islands including Puerto Rico.
‘The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death,’ Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. ‘This is an extremely dangerous storm.’
Residents on the U.S. East Coast were urged to monitor the storm’s progress in case it should turn northward toward Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.
‘This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of (Hurricane) Harvey,’ Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement.
Florida Governor Rick Scott declared the state of emergency for all 67 counties in the state on Monday after some forecasts showed the powerful storm could be headed for the East Coast.
‘Hurricane Irma is a major and life-threatening storm and Florida must be prepared. I have continued to be briefed by the Florida Division of Emergency Management on Hurricane Irma and current forecast models have Florida in Irma’s path – potentially impacting millions of Floridians,’ Scott said.
‘Today, given these forecasts and the intensity of this storm, I have declared a state of emergency for every county in Florida to make certain that state, federal and local governments are able to work together and make sure resources are dispersed to local communities as we get prepared for this storm.’
He also ordered the suspension of road tolls across the state and activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to prepare for Hurricane Irma.
BILLIONAIRES’ HOMES UNDER THREAT FROM IRMA
Richard Branson is refusing to leave his 74-acre Necker Island complex in the British Virgin Islands despite the ‘extremely dangerous’ Hurricane Irma crashing into the Caribbean.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported that the storm, which is expected to make landfall along the string of French islands that includes Guadeloupe later today before heading to Haiti and Florida, has now become the maximum Category 5.
This morning, the eye of the ‘potentially catastrophic’ hurricane hit Barbuda just hours after officials warned people to seek protection from Irma’s ‘onslaught’ in a statement that closed with: ‘May God protect us all.’
But Branson, writing on his blog yesterday, said he is not going to leave his island to dodge the storm.
The monster hurricane, the most powerful on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, is about 270 miles east of the island of Antigua and is packing maximum sustained winds of 175 miles per hour.
The storm was moving towards the west at 14 miles per hour, and is expected to drop between four and eight inches of rain when it hits land.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s $50million pad on St Barts is also in the hurricane’s path.
British Airways has already cancelled a flight from Gatwick to Antigua in light of the warnings.
‘These rainfall amounts may cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,’ the NHC warned.
The storm is also is expected to ’cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.’
Branson fully acknowledged the danger of Hurricane Irma, stressing that the ‘devastation’ they can cause ‘cannot be overstated’, but said he will stay on his island regardless.
He said: ‘On Necker Island we have constructed really strong buildings (with hurricane blinds) that should be able to handle extreme weather pretty well, though with a Category 5 hurricane almost nothing can withstand it.
‘We had some lovely guests staying on Necker Island who have cut their trip short for safety reasons, and another group of guests have also postponed.
‘I will be on Necker alongside our team, as I have been on the three times we have had hurricanes over the past 30 years.’
His main concern, he added, was for the locals on the British Virgin Islands – as well as the wildlife.
He explained: ‘I am also concerned for the wonderful wildlife of the BVI, not least on Necker and Moskito, where many flamingos, lemurs, scarlet ibis and other stunning species live.
‘Hopefully all people and animals can keep out of harm’s way in the coming days.’
Hurricanes, he said, are ‘one of the wonders of the natural world’, adding: ‘The power of the sea breaking over the cliff tops, the eerie hush when you are in the eye of the hurricane and then the roar of the winds, the lightning and the rain.’
And the businessman also took the opportunity to discuss the need to support the Paris agreement on clean energy.
He said: ‘Man-made climate change is a key factor in the increasing intensity of these hurricanes, as many experts have suggested. The damage caused by Harvey all over Texas is a tragic and costly reminder that our climate is changing and that we are not doing enough to tackle this enormous challenge.’
Scott says in a statement that the initial 100 troops will be stationed throughout the state. Some 7,000 National Guard members will report to duty Friday, when the storm could be bearing down on Florida.
Scott says tolls will be suspended to keep traffic flowing as residents begin to evacuate coastal areas in the potential path of the dangerous Category 5 storm.
The governor adds that tolls will remain suspended ‘for the duration of the storm’s impacts to Florida.’
Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County’s mayor says residents and visitors should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach, as soon as Wednesday evening.
An NFL game to be played between the the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday has also been cancelled.
Water and basic foodstuffs are already flying off the shelves of some stores in Florida.
Pablo Rodriguez surveyed the empty water aisle at a Fort Lauderdale Winn Dixie with dismay, saying ‘I was hoping to get a few cases.’
The 65-year-old said he would have to try other shops, because ‘all the people are stocking up quick.’
Theresa Webster, 60, of Fort Lauderdale had heard water was sold out at Publix but still available at Winn Dixie, but there was none by the time she got there in the afternoon.
She was also stocking up on canned tuna, crackers and bread.
Said Webster: ‘I got some water already but I wanted more.’
By mid-day Monday, many grocery stores across South Florida had been emptied of bottled water and stores were hoping to restock beginning Tuesday morning.
States of emergency were also declared in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands where residents rushed to find last-minute supplies, forming long lines outside supermarkets and gas stations.
People in Puerto Rico braced for electricity outages after the director of the island’s power company predicted that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for four to six months. But ‘some areas will have power (back) in less than a week,’ Ricardo Ramos told radio station Notiuno 630 AM. The utility’s infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans experienced an island wide outage last year.
Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands expected four inches to eight inches of rain and winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph.
The governors of both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have submitted state of emergency declarations to the White House ahead of the storm.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello says he has spoken to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and thanked him in a tweet for ‘the attention given to Puerto Rico’ ahead of the storm
Puerto Rico has announced a number of steps in preparation for the storm, including a 24-hour ban on the sale of alcohol starting 6am Wednesday.
The government has also dispatched inspectors to stores throughout the territory to check for possible price-gouging.
U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp says in a news briefing on Tuesday that he doesn’t want to frighten anyone but that forecasters predict the storm could skirt the territory or even pass directly over it.
Mapp says people in the islands may start to feel the storm’s effects around midmorning Wednesday.
‘This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane,’ Mapp warned. ‘It’s not time to get on a surfboard.’
Irma grew into a Category 4 storm on Monday, any by early Tuesday, it’s maximum sustained winds increased to near 150 miles per hour. In comparison, Hurricane Harvey had winds of 130 mph when it made landfall in Texas last week. It was centered about 320 miles east of the Leeward Islands and moving west at 14 mph.
It is forecast to begin buffeting the region on Tuesday and the US National Hurricane Center said additional strengthening was expected.
Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches of rain, cause landslides and dangerous flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet.
In the Caribbean, hurricane warnings were issued for 12 island groups, including Antigua, where the governor urged people to evacuate the tiny island of Anegada if they could ahead of the storm.
STUDY SHOWS PEOPLE PREPARE LESS FOR FEMALE-NAMED HURRICANES
People prepare differently for hurricanes depending on whether they have a male or female name, a new study has shown.
A team of Princeton University researchers studied data on fatalities in hurricanes in the U.S.dating back to the 1970s, and found that female hurricanes have been consistently more deadly than hurricanes given a male name.
The researchers say changing a hurricane’s name form Charlie to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll.
‘Feminine-named hurricanes (vs. masculine-named hurricanes) cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to a lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness,’ the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Until the 1950s, hurricanes were tracked each year by the order in which they occurred. It was later decided that it would be easier for people to track these systems if they were given easily remembered names.
So now, each storm is given a name and they alternate back and forth between male and female. This year, the first storm of the season was given a female name, Arlene. The first storm of the season is an A-letter name and each subsequent storm takes the next letter in the alphabet. We’ve had nine storms this season, so we’re on the letter I, Irma.
The researchers do not suggest a new way of naming storms that might address this problem. They leave that to the media and policy makers.
However, they say that educating the public on gender biases might help address the issue of underestimating ‘female’ storms.
Vivian Wheatley, proprietor of the Anegada Reef Hotel, planned to stay behind. She said she would stay in one of the hotel rooms and take advantage of the generator since there were no guests.
‘We know it’s a very powerful (storm), and we know it’s going to be very close,’ she said. ‘Let’s hope for the best.’
A hurricane warning was posted for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Martin, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and St. Barts, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. and British Virgin islands. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Guadeloupe and Dominica.
The storm’s center was expected to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the hurricane center said.
‘Irma is a serious threat for the Caribbean islands and United States,’ AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok said on Monday.
It is still unclear what path Irma will take as it inches closer to the US.
Right now, meteorologists say landfall in Georgia, Florida or the Carolinas are all possible. The storm could also move out into the Atlantic and completely bi-pass the East Coast, though that is now the least likely option.
‘This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of Harvey,’ Evan Myers, Expert Senior Meteorologist and Chief Operating Officer said.
If it does hit the U.S., it won’t be until this weekend, but residents in the southern U.S. shouldn’t waste time getting an emergency plan together.
‘As we saw just 10 days ago with Harvey, it is important to be ready to evacuate and be prepared with at a minimum, a list of items you would take if you had 30 minute notice or 1 hours notice of 6 hours or a day to evacuate,’ Myers said.
Meanwhile, government workers on the islands of the eastern Caribbean are clearing drains and pruning trees ahead of Irma.
Hundreds of flights are being cancelled in the eastern Caribbean through Tuesday, and cruise ships are being re-rerouted to stay away from the storm.
American Airlines has added extra flights out of two Caribbean islands Tuesday morning to get people out before the storm hit.
The flights were added in St. Maarten and St. Kitts and Nevis. Those are in addition to regularly scheduled flights Tuesday and Wednesday to Miami.
American says it expects to make additional flight changes as it monitors the storm.
Antigua’s airport has closed with an ominous statement from local authorities as Hurricane Irma approaches the Caribbean island.
The statement from the V.C. Bird International Airport says it is shutting down Tuesday and advises all visitors and residents of the two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda to seek protection from the ‘onslaught’ of the Category 5 storm.
It closes with: ‘May God protect us all.’