Hurricane Irma batters Caribbean as Florida braces for weekend landfall

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Monster Hurricane Irma slammed across islands in the northern Caribbean on Wednesday, packing a potentially catastrophic mix of pounding winds, raging surf and rain en route to a possible Florida landfall this weekend.

Irma is expected to become the second powerful storm to thrash the U.S. mainland in as many weeks but its precise trajectory was uncertain. Hurricane Harvey killed more than 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 (295 km per hour), passed over the island of St. Martin, east of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, on Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said. Category 5 is its highest category.

In Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan, a handful of people stood on the wind-whipped shore of a beachfront park on Wednesday morning to take a last look at the ocean before seeking shelter.

“I am worried. This is going to be a huge storm, bigger than I have ever seen,” said Angelica Flecha, 45.

She has stocked her second-floor home with food and water and put metal storm shutters on the windows, but was worried about a storm surge on the island, which is under a hurricane warning.

Most businesses were closed and streets were almost empty. Cars packed parking lots of stores that were still open, with shoppers stuffing ice and water into their trunks.

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello urged the island’s 3.4 million residents to seek refuge in one of 460 hurricane shelters.

It was not immediately clear how much damage Irma had done as it swept west.

Two American tourists in the French territory of Guadeloupe, Loren Ann Mayo and Rachel Scharett, told CNN they were weathering the storm in their hotel room’s bathroom.

Following a loud cracking noise, Mayo said, “The balcony snapped and is now hanging on by one little piece of wire.”

Emergency officials on Antigua and Barbuda reported three injuries but minimal damage, with some roofs blown off. Communications between the islands were cut off, officials said.

“MUCH TO FEAR”

Several other Leeward Islands, including Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, as well as the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and the Dominican Republic were under a hurricane warning.

Hurricane Irma, a record Category 5 storm, is seen in this NOAA National Weather Service National Hurricane Center image from GOES-16 satellite…

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