ST JOHN'S (Antigua): The most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history made its first landfall in the islands of the northeast Caribbean early today, churning along a path pointing to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly heading for Florida over the weekend.
The eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 1:47 am (loca time), the National Weather Service said. Residents said over local radio that phone lines went down. Heavy rain and howling winds raked the neighboring island of Antigua, sending debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.
Officials warned people to seek protection from Irma's "onslaught" in a statement that closed with: "May God protect us all."
In Barbuda, the storm ripped off the roof of the island's police station forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter.
The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands. Midcie Francis of the National Office of Disaster Services confirmed there was damage to several homes, but said it was too early to do tally or assess the extent of the damage.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charles Fernandez, who has temporary oversight for Disaster Management told The Associated Press via text that the northern end of island was hit hard by the storm. He did not elaborate on the extent of damage.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 185 mph (295 kph), according to the US National Hurricane Center. Its forecast early today was for the winds to fluctuate slightly but for the storm to 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 through the day today.
"I hear it's a Cat 5 now and I'm terrified," Antigua resident Carol Joseph said yesterday as she finished her last trip to the supermarket before seeking shelter.
"I had to come back for more batteries because I don't know how long the current will be off."
On the 108-square-mile island, people who live in low- lying areas were staying with friends and relatives on higher ground or sleeping in churches, schools and community facilities built to withstand hurricanes. None of the shelters have yet been tested by Category 5 winds, however.
Many homes in Antigua and Barbuda are not built on concrete foundations or have poorly constructed wooden roofs that are susceptible to wind damage. Other islands in the path of the storm included the Virgin Islands and Anguilla, a small, low-lying territory of about 15,000 people.
President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.
Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma is moving over water that is 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal. The 79 degree (26 Celsius) water that hurricanes need goes about 250 feet deep (80 meters), 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 are usually home to warmer waters that fuel cyclones. 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.
"This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane," US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned. "It's not time to get on a surfboard."
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating the six islands in the south because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the "potentially catastrophic" wind, flooding and storm surge.