Hurricane Irma lashes Caribbean islands; Florida braces for hit

(This story adds comment from Puerto Rico governor, power outages on island; comment from NHC chief; state disaster declarations in Georgia, North Carolina; evacuation measures in Florida)

By Scott Malone

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, howled past Puerto Rico on Wednesday after thrashing several smaller Caribbean islands with roof-ripping winds, drenching rains and pounding surf on a collision course with Florida.

At least four people were reported killed on four different islands by Irma, which weather forecasters have described as a “potentially catastrophic” Category 5 storm, the highest U.S. classification for hurricanes.

The dual-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda was especially hard hit. The northernmost island, Barbuda, home to roughly 1,800 people, was “totally demolished,” with 90 percent of all dwellings there leveled, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said, according to island television broadcasts.

Browne said one person was confirmed killed on Barbuda. A second storm-related fatality, that of a surfer, was reported on Barbados, and the French government said at least two people were killed in Caribbean island territories of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.

Irma, with top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (300 km per hour), was on track to reach Florida on Saturday or Sunday, becoming the second major hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in as many weeks.

While Irma’s intensity could fluctuate, and its precise course remained uncertain, the storm was expected to remain at least a Category 4 before arriving in Florida.

Two other hurricanes formed on Wednesday. Katia in the Gulf of Mexico posed no threat to the United States, according to U.S. forecasters, but Hurricane Jose in the open Atlantic, about 1,000 miles (1,610 km) east of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles islands, could also eventually threaten the U.S. mainland.

The flurry of severe storm activity comes after Hurricane Harvey claimed about 60 lives and caused property damage estimated as high as $180 billion after pummeling the Gulf Coasts of Texas and Louisiana with torrential rains and severe flooding.

Florida emergency management officials, chastened by Harvey’s devastation, began evacuations days in advance of Irma’s arrival, ordering all tourists to leave the Florida Keys, a resort archipelago off the state’s southern tip, starting Wednesday morning. Evacuation of residents from the Keys…

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