Hurricane Irma rapidly strengthened Tuesday as it moved closer to the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, becoming an extremely dangerous category five storm and one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, forecasters said.
As of 11 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the center of Irma was located about 225 miles (365 kilometers) east of Antigua, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC). Its maximum sustained winds were near 180 miles (285 kilometers) per hour with gusts up to 219 miles (350 kilometers) per hour.
It makes Irma one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded. “Irma is an extremely impressive hurricane in both infrared and visible satellite images,” said Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.
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,” Brown said. “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, Haiti, and the Bahamas.
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 once 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.
“The chance of direct impacts from Irma later this week and this weekend is increasing in the Florida Keys and portions of the Florida Peninsula,” Brown explained. “However, it is too soon to specify the timing and magnitude of the impacts.”
Governor Scott on Tuesday activated 100 members of the Florida Air and Army National Guard to support with planning, logistics and operations in preparation for Hurricane Irma. In addition, all 7,000 National Guard members have been directed to report for duty on Friday morning.
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