Hurricane Irma churned its way across the northern Caribbean islands on Wednesday with a mix of fierce winds, surf and rain. Meteorologists believe it will hit Florida by Saturday.
The storm made landfall in the Caribbean island of Barbuda around 7am, cutting off phone lines and battering the nearby island of Antigua with heavy rains and wind before heading toward St Martin.
The governors of Puerto Rico and Florida declared states of emergency ahead of the storm on Monday. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
Florida Governor Rick Scott urged residents and tourists to take the threat seriously, warning: “Do not ignore evacuation orders. We can rebuild your home, but we cannot rebuild your life.” He warned Irma is “bigger, faster and stronger” than Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the state 25 years ago.
Irma is expected to become the second most powerful storm to thrash the US mainland in as many weeks, but its precise trajectory remains uncertain. Hurricane Harvey killed more than 60 people when it ravaged parts of southern Texas and Louisiana late last month.
Irma is shaping up to be such a threat that even the experts are upping their warnings...
1. It’s one of the most powerful hurricanes ever
Hurricane Irma is one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricanes in recorded history. The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) has called the Category 5 hurricane “extremely dangerous” and “potentially catastrophic” with maximum sustained wind gusts currently reaching 185mph.
It’s officially now the strongest hurricane to hit the Atlantic Ocean not including the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which, as The Associated Press noted, are more prone to cyclones because the waters are warmer.
Taylor Trogdon, a senior scientist at the NHC, tweeted: “I am at a complete and utter loss for words looking at Irma’s appearance on satellite imagery.”
Hurricane Allen hit 190mph in 1980, while 2005’s Wilma, 1988’s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Key storm all had 185mph winds.
2. It’s appearing on earthquake seismometers
It is so strong it has appeared on seismometers which ordinarily measure earthquakes. Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, tweeted: “Seismometer recordings from the past 48 hours on Guadaloupe show Cat. 5 #Hurricane #Irma driving closer towards the Lesser Antilles.”
He later explained it was likely to be background noise, such as strong winds causing trees to move and ocean waves which were causing the equipment to pick up the storm.
However this doesn’t mean Irma will create earthquakes. Hicks told the Express: “Earthquakes occur tens of (miles) deep inside the Earth’s crust, a long way from the influence of weather events and there is no evidence to suggest that hurricanes and storms directly cause earthquakes.”
3. It’s larger than the state of Ohio
Hurricane Irma is larger than the state of Ohio. That’s according to meteorologist and weather graphics designer JD Rudd.
He tweeted: “It’s larger than the state of Ohio, if that helps put it in perspective.”
He later updated that Hurricane Irma is: “About 364 miles wide... which is wider than Ohio with room to spare on either side. Wow.”
The Detroit Free Press points out that as of Wednesday morning, Irma’s eye was almost as big as the Detroit metropolitan area and that the entire hurricane would engulf the state of Michigan.
4. More panic buying
If Irma hits the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico today (Wednesday), it could mark the first time two Category 4 or stronger hurricanes have made US landfall in a single year.
Panicked residents and holidaymakers in the Florida and the Caribbean have been clearing out the supermarkets in preparation for the storm. Water and candles are proving especially popular given the propensity for storms to knock out water and electricity services.
5. Inside the eye of the storm looks like this
If you were wondering what it’s like to fly through the eyewall of such a whopping storm, wonder no more – a weather plane used for research has done just that.
The video was shot aboard National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flight NOAA42 just before the storm made landfall in Barbuda.
Interior instruments are shown recording data during intense turbulence - but its the views of what’s happening outside - including pelting rain and howling wind - that are positively hair-raising.
6. It (very) visible from space
Satellite footage shared by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the raw, terrifying power of the storm. It’s little wonder that officials announced the closure of Antigua’s airport on Tuesday with the prayer: “May God protect us all.”
7. Irma is bad news for holidaymakers
Hundreds of flights have been cancelled and on Tuesday British Airways sent an empty aircraft to Antigua, returning with 326 passengers that evening. On Wednesday the airports at Antigua and St Kitts were closed, prompting the airline to cancel its flights from Gatwick.
Virgin Atlantic has cancelled its flight from London to Antigua on 7 September. While other flights are scheduled to operate as normal, passengers are urged to check the status of their journey before travelling to the airport. Customers booking travel through, from or to Antigua, Havana and Miami between Wednesday and 11 September may rebook or receive full refunds.
Thomas Cook has sent a team of 18 special assistance staff to Cuba and the Dominican Republic to support customers during the hurricane.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is urging British tourists to follow the advice of local authorities and obey any evacuation orders.