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Hurricane Irma — with its ferocious 185 mph winds — made landfall in the Caribbean early Wednesday, slamming into Antigua and Barbuda as it headed for Puerto Rico.
Cuba and South Florida were still in Irma’s projected path into the weekend.
The catastrophic Category 5 storm, the most powerful Atlantic storm on record, is expected to bring strong storm surges and up to 20 inches of rain in some places.
Irma is moving west-northwest at 16 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center’s advisory at 5 a.m. Wednesday. The Bahamas government has issued a hurricane warning for the southwestern stretch of islands as well as the Turks and Caicos, as well as a hurricane watch for Central Bahamas.
The National Weather Service said the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 1:47 a.m. Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. Residents said over local radio that phone lines went down as the eye passed.
The forecast had the dangerous core of Irma pummeling the island chain into Wednesday morning, then moving over the U.S. and British Virgin Islands Wednesday. By late Wednesday, Irma is expected to pass the northern coast of Puerto Rico. From there, it’s expected to hit the northern coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic before heading to Cuba.
In the last few hours, the storm got a little smaller, with winds extending outward of 50 miles from the center.
Hurricane warnings, which means that the storm is imminent, were in effect for much of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and parts of the Dominican Republic.
Watches, typically issued 48 hours before a storm is expected to hit, were in effect for the provinces of Matanzas eastward to Guantanamo in Cuba.
The latest advisory showed Irma had made a turn and was heading a bit north instead of just west.
The storm is expected to produce a storm surge as high as 15 to 20 feet, including the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas, the advisory said. Rainfall could reach up to 20 inches in some spots.
“The combination of a life-threatening storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the advisory said.
It was still not clear Tuesday night whether a collision between a high-pressure system and a low-pressure trough moving across the United States will change Irma’s direction.
The current trajectory still shows much of Florida in the storm’s path with the storm expected to hit South Florida by Sunday.
The Atlantic’s most powerful hurricane ever outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean is expected to pound Florida with damaging winds, but where, and just how bad the state gets hit, remains unclear.
Irma has been churning west, on a path that began slamming the Leeward Islands on Tuesday night, as it rolls toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. It’s being steered by a high pressure ridge that in the coming days is expected to collide with a low pressure trough moving across the U.S. When they meet, the ridge should weaken and allow Irma to sneak north, determining where the hurricane’s fiercest winds land. But so far, models have not been able to agree on where that critical turn happens.
Put Florida’s skinny peninsula in the path of such a monster storm — hurricane winds stretch 120 miles, Florida is just 160 miles wide — and it means storm conditions could be widespread.
Forecasters said Tuesday evening that models generally agree over the next 72 hours, but after that they begin to spread, raising uncertainty. Due to track errors ranging from 175 to 225 miles, they warned that more attention should be paid to the forecast cone.
In Puerto Rico, the electric company warned the island could be without power for four to six months while the government prepared to open 456 shelters capable of housing more than 62,000 people. The Turks and Caicos has ordered Salt Cay, its southernmost inhabited island, evacuated beginning Wednesday. In Cuba, where Matthew razed some neighborhoods last year, officials urged caution, but took a more notable low-key approach.
Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands will come under dangerous conditions Wednesday. Next in line: the Dominican Republic on Thursday.