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Hurricane Irma slams Caribbean as Category 5 storm

Tracking Hurricane Irma

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Heavy rain and 185-mph winds lashed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico's northeast coast Wednesday as Hurricane Irma roared through Caribbean islands on its way to a possible hit on South Florida.

CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil reports from San Juan that hotels in Puerto Rico's capital had folded up their operations and stores were boarded up or completely stripped clean of supplies in anticipation of the storm's wrath.

Puerto Rico's governor had warned residents that Irma could be more dangerous than Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana late last month.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has 200 support staff on the ground in Puerto Rico, Dokoupil reports. The agency has 290,000 meals and 600,000 liters of water available for distribution.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the evacuation of all residents in the Florida Keys would begin Wednesday night. The area was expected to start feeling Irma's effects as soon as Friday night, Scott said.

"If you are told to evacuate, get out quickly," Scott said. "We can expect additional evacuations as this storm continues to come near our state. Everyone must listen to their local officials."

Scott also said that individuals with special needs would begin evacuating from Miami Wednesday morning and that officials in Miami-Dade County were advising residents in low-lying areas to start evacuating.  

The NHC issued its 5 p.m. advisory to say that the eye is moving away from the northernmost Virgin Islands and tropical storm and hurricane conditions are spreading over portions of Puerto Rico. Irma is moving toward the west-northwest near 16 mph.

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A map from the National Hurricane Center shows Irma's probable path as of 5 p.m. ET on Wed., Sept. 6, 2017. U.S. National Hurricane Center

On the forecast track, according to the NHC, the extremely dangerous core of Irma will pass just north of Puerto Rico tonight, pass near or just north of the coast of Hispaniola Thursday, and be near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas by Thursday evening.

Also new in the latest advisory from the NHC:

  • The government of the Bahamas has issued a Hurricane Warning for the central Bahamas, including Cat Island, the Exumas, Long Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador. A Hurricane Watch has been issued for the northwestern Bahamas, including the Abacos, Andros Island, Berry Islands, Bimini, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama Island and New Providence.
  • The government of Cuba issued a tropical storm warning for the Cuban provinces of Guantanamo, Holguin and Las Tunas. 
  • The government of France has discontinued the hurricane warning for Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.

The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever measured destroyed homes and flooded streets across a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean, passing directly over Barbuda and leaving the island of some 1,700 people incommunicado.

France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity.

Amateur video from Saint Martin showed partially submerged cars and damaged boats near a flooded harbor, the Reuters news service reports.

Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.

While France received no immediate reports of casualties, the minister for French overseas territories, Annick Girardin, said: "We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn't want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites ... We're preparing for the worst."

Is Puerto Rico prepared for Hurricane Irma?

By early Wednesday afternoon the center of the storm was 20 miles east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and heading west-northwest at 16 mph.

The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma's magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.

"We have to prepare for the worst," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. "If we don't, it could be devastating."

What areas will be hit hardest by Hurricane Irma?

Puerto Rico's public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a deep economic crisis and the agency's director warned that some areas could be without power from four to six months because the infrastructure has already deteriorated so badly. Outages were reported in some neighborhoods well ahead of the storm, with more than 285,000 homes without power and nearly 4,500 people without water by mid-afternoon Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were in shelters along with more than 100 pets.

The federal government has stepped in, with President Trump this week approving an emergency declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. That means that FEMA and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.

"Watching Hurricane closely," Mr. Trump said on Twitter Wednesday morning. "My team, which has done, and is doing, such a good job in Texas, is already in Florida. No rest for the weary!"

He later addressed the storm during an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and congressional leaders.

"We'll see what happens," Mr. Trump said. "We'll know in a very short period of time, but it looks like it could be something that will be not good, believe me, not good."

Mr. Trump later headed to North Dakota, where he spoke about his tax plan.

EPA officials said their biggest concerns were oil spills and power disruptions to water supply systems.

"No matter what precautions we take, the coastal flooding will impact oil tanks," said Catherine McCabe, a regional administrator.

Puerto Rico braces for Irma's impact

Another concern is the 20 Superfund sites in Puerto Rico and the three in the U.S. Virgin islands, given that most are near the coast, she said. She said EPA officials in New Jersey are on standby to fly down after the hurricane passes through.

State maintenance worker Juan Tosado said he was without power for three months after Hurricane Hugo killed dozens of people in Puerto Rico in 1989.

"I expect the same from this storm," he said. "It's going to be bad."

Miami Beach gears up for Irma

Tourist Pauline Jackson, a 59-year-old registered nurse from Tampa, Florida, puffed on her last cigarette as a San Juan hotel prepared to shutter its doors ahead of the storm.

"I'm in a hurricane here, and when I get home, I'll be in the same hurricane. It's crazy," she said.

She tried to leave ahead of the storm but all flights were sold out, and she now worries about her home in Tampa.

"When you're from Florida, you understand a Category 5 hurricane," said Jackson, who is scheduled to fly out on Friday.

Hurricane Irma makes landfall in the Caribbean

The hurricane center said Irma's winds would fluctuate, but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it roared past Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.

By early Sunday, Irma is expected to hit Florida, where Scott said he planned to have 7,000 National Guard members activated by Friday and warned that Irma is "bigger, faster and stronger" than Hurricane Andrew. Andrew pummeled south Florida 25 years ago and wiped out entire neighborhoods with ferocious winds. Mr. Trump also declared an emergency in Florida and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.

The mayor of Miami-Dade County said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most coastal areas as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days' worth of food and water.

Irma evacuations begin in Florida Keys

The State Department authorized voluntary evacuation of U.S. diplomats and their families from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, where the storm was expected to arrive by Friday.

Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma was moving over water that was 1.8 degrees warmer than normal. 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 usually have warmer waters. 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.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating six islands because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the "potentially catastrophic" wind, flooding and storm surge. People there would be flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.

Puerto Rico braces for Hurricane Irma

The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see 10 inches of rain, with as much as 20 inches in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.

The website cruisecritic.com said that 28 cruises had been canceled, shortened or had their itineraries changed as a result of the hurricane.

Also Wednesday, a new tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico's coast. Tropical Storm Katia had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph by the early afternoon and the hurricane center said it could become a hurricane before it approaches the coast of Veracruz state. Katia was located about 175 miles north of the city of Veracruz.

And another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic was expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night. Tropical Storm Jose's maximum sustained winds had increased to near 70 mph. The storm was centered about 1,135 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and was moving west near 13 mph.

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