Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes on record continued steaming toward Florida on Wednesday as its course continued to shift after three days.
At 11 p.m., the Category 5 storm was passing just to the north of Puerto Rico after slamming the Virgin Islands earlier in the afternoon.
Nearly 900,000 people were without power in Puerto Rico as authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands already devastated by the historic storm.
On the island of Barbuda, nearly every building was damaged when the eye of the storm passed almost directly overhead early Wednesday and about 60 percent of the island's roughly 1,400 people were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the Associated Press.
On the forecast track, Irma was to pass near or just north of the coast of the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) today. The extremely dangerous storm would be near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas tonight.
Forecasters say the threat of direct hurricane impacts in Florida over the weekend and early next week has increased. Hurricane watches could be issued for portions of the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula today.
This is only the second time since satellites started tracking storms about 40 years ago that one maintained 185 mph winds for more than 24 hours, said Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach. The other was the massive killer typhoon Haiyan that killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in 2013.
"It's a humdinger," he said.
"This thing is a buzzsaw; I'm glad Floridians are taking it very seriously," Klotzbach said. "This is going to be a bad storm. I don't see any way out of it."
Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 50 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 185 miles, the hurricane center says.
CURRENT CONDITIONS AND FORECAST TRACK
As of 11 p.m., the storm still had maximum sustained winds of 185 mph and was about 85 miles north-northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moving west-northwest at 16 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
It is forecast to continue its westerly track over the next couple of days, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters say the track continues to shift east.
[South Florida Water Management District]
The storm's winds are expected to fluctuate slightly but remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two. The most dangerous winds, usually nearest to the eye, were forecast to pass just north of Puerto Rico Wednesday, near or just north of the coast of the Dominican Republictoday, and be near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas tonight.
The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11 feet, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see 15- to 20-foot waves later in the week, forecasters said.
"This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane," U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp warned. "It's not time to get on a surfboard."
The storm could cause life-threatening storm surges, rains and mudslides.
The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see up to 10 inches of rain, with as much as 8 to 12 inches in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
While Wednesday morning's track shift to the right could be bad news for South Florida's densely developed east coast, forecasters generally look for patterns in model runs, and avoid basing projections on a single run.
"I don't like to get all excited about one run to the next run. I like to look at a lot of models over a lot of runs and look for trends and consistency," said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. "If you have a model that hops around from one run to the next to the next, it's kind of like an eye-rolling moment. It shows it doesn't really have a grasp on what's happening."
Florida could begin feeling tropical storm force winds late Friday or early Saturday, with hurricane conditions moving across the state over the weekend. With hurricane winds extending 50 miles from Irma's center, and tropical winds reaching 185 miles, Irma is bound to deliver widespread impacts if it tracks across the state.
IRMA MAKES LANDFALL
In Barbuda, the storm ripped off the roof of the island's police station forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communications. Midcie Francis of the National Office of Disaster Services confirmed there was damage to several homes, but said it was too early to do tally or assess the extent of the damage.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charles Fernandez, who has temporary oversight for Disaster Management told the Associated Press via text that the northern end of island was hit hard by the storm. He did not elaborate on the extent of damage.
[National Hurricane Center]
Barbuda Prime Minister Browne said roads and telecommunications systems on the island were destroyed and recovery will take months, if not years. A 2-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm, Browne told the AP.
Significant effects were also reported on St. Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control. Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily flooded. France sent emergency food and water rations there and to the French island of St. Bart's, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to St. Martin and two other Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
FLORIDA ON ALERT
In Florida, people stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.
Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 National Guard members were to report for duty Friday when the storm could be approaching the area. On Monday, Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida's 67 counties.
Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma's path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade county said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county's coastal areas.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days' worth of food and water.
The storm seemed almost certain to hit the United States by early next week.
"You'd be hard pressed to find any model that doesn't have some impact on Florida." said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.
CARIBBEAN ISLANDS BRACE FOR IMPACT
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating the six islands in the south 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 starting Wednesday in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.
"The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm," Minnis said.
The 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.
"The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we've ever seen," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. "A lot of infrastructure won't be able to withstand this kind of force."
The director of the island's power company has warned that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for about a week and other, unspecified areas for four to six months. The utility's infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans experienced an island-wide outage last year.
OTHER TROPICAL ACTIVITY
A new hurricane formed in the Atlantic, to the east of Irma. The hurricane center said Hurricane Jose was about 925 miles east of the Lesser Antilles late Wednesday and its maximum sustained winds had risen to 85 mph. It was moving west-northwest at 17 mph.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Katia formed in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Mexico. The hurricane center said the storm is about 200 miles east of Tampico and is moving east-southeast at 2 mph with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph.
FACTORS FUELING IRMA'S INTENSITY
Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma is moving over water that is 1.8 degrees warmer than normal. The 79 degree water that hurricanes need goes about 250 feet deep, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private forecasting service Weather Underground.
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 are usually home to warmer waters that fuel cyclones. 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.