Hurricane Irma reached historic proportions on Wednesday, Sept. 6, becoming the only Atlantic or Eastern Pacific hurricane on record with sustained winds of 185 mph for over 24 hours, according to Eric Blake, a scientist with the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
Irma slammed Caribbean islands with pounding winds, rain, and surging surf on Wednesday as officials in Florida called for evacuations ahead of the storm’s expected landfall there this weekend.
Irma could become the second powerful storm to thrash the U.S. mainland in as many weeks, but its precise trajectory remains uncertain. Hurricane Harvey killed about 60 people and caused as much as $180 billion in damage after hitting Texas late last month.
The eye of Irma, a Category 5 storm with winds of 185 miles per hour, was passing over the northernmost Virgin Islands on Wednesday afternoon after crossing the half-French, half-Dutch island of St. Martin, the NHC said. Category 5 is its highest category.
On its current path the core of Irma, which the Miami-based center said was the strongest Atlantic storm on record, was expected to pass near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday before scraping the north coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday.
Karel van Oosterom, the Netherlands ambassador to the United Nations, said Irma had hit the Dutch islands of Saba and Sint Eustasius before overrunning St. Martin.
“First information indicates that a lot of damage has been done, but communication is still extremely difficult,” he said at a U.N. meeting.
Irma began lashing Puerto Rico with rain at midmorning. Gov. Ricardo Rossello told residents to stay inside as the storm bore down on the island. “There is no reason to be in the street,” Rossello told a midday press conference.
Many businesses in the capital of San Juan were closed and many buildings were covered with storm shutters. Occasional shoppers were out making final purchases of water, ice, and food to prepare for what could be several days without power.
Rene Franco, a 37-year-old medical student, said he had still not decided whether to flee to a shelter.
“I feel ready. I bought groceries. I bought water—too much water,” he said as he walked his 12-year-old dog Heaven before the storm arrived. “In the past I have always stayed in my house but this time it depends. It depends on the waves and the water. This is a very difficult storm.”
Reuters contributed to this report.