UPDATE 1 – Irma strengthens into a massive category 5 hurricane

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Hurricane Irma has strengthened into an extremely dangerous category five storm as it moves closer to the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, forecasters say. It is expected to remain a major hurricane throughout the week.

As of 8 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the center of Irma was located about 270 miles (440 kilometers) east of Antigua, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC). Its maximum sustained winds are near 175 miles (280 kilometers) per hour with higher gusts.

Forecasters expect the center of Irma to reach the northeastern Leeward Islands on early Wednesday morning, when it should still be a category 5 hurricane. It is then expected to pass close to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and parts of the Bahamas over the next few days, after which it could impact Florida on Sunday.

“Irma is expected to affect the northeastern Leeward Islands as an extremely dangerous category 5 hurricane, accompanied by life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall,” said NHC forecaster Daniel Brown. “Preparations should be rushed to completion, as tropical-storm force winds are expected to first arrive in the hurricane warning area later today.”

A hurricane warning is in effect for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saba, Sint Eustatius, Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Vieques, and Culebra. A hurricane watch is in effect for Guadeloupe and parts of the Dominican Republic.

Irma is expected to remain a category 5 hurricane as it moves through the Leeward Islands and passes Puerto Rico, although fluctuations in intensity are possible due to eyewall replacement cycles. Irma is forecast to slightly weaken on Thursday, reducing it to a strong category four hurricane as it passes the Dominican Republic.

In anticipation of the hurricane, the Dutch Interior Ministry said Tuesday that 100 soldiers were being deployed to Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba, all of which are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Two Navy vessels are also en-route to deliver aid and additional soldiers after the storm passes.

Authorities in the U.S. state of Florida are also bracing for the hurricane, even though uncertainty remains about how close to the state the storm will come. Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a statewide state of emergency on Monday to ensure that local communities are prepared.

“There is an increasing chance of seeing some impacts from Irma in the Florida Peninsula and the Florida Keys later this week and this weekend,” Brown explained. “Otherwise, it is still too early to determine what direct impacts Irma might have on the continental United States.”

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