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Hurricane Irma Roars Through Caribbean; Expected To Hit US On Sunday

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Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, lashed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico's northeast coast Wednesday with heavy rain and historic, 185-mph winds as Irma roared through Caribbean islands on its way to a possible devastating hit on Florida.

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 which left its nearly 1,700 residents largely incommunicado.

As of 11 p.m., the eye of Irma was passing just north of Puerto Rico, the National Hurricane Center said. A hurricane warning remained in effect for Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to the northern border with Haiti, Haiti from the northern border with the Dominican Republic to Le Mole St. Nicholas, Southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands and Central Bahamas.

The hurricane warning for the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands has been discontinued, the National Hurricane Center said. 

The National Hurricane Center said that a hurricane watches will likely be issued for portions of the Florida Keys and the Florida pennisula on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the National Office of Disaster Services for Antigua and Barbuda confirmed one death on Barbuda caused by Hurricane Irma. Spokesperson Midcie Francis says there has been massive destruction on the island.

"A significant number of the houses have been totally destroyed," said Lionel Hurst, the prime minister's chief of staff.

The Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne said Wednesday that damage to Barbuda may reach a total of $150 million, the Reuters news agency reports.

"This rebuilding initiative will take years," Browne told local television.

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."

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) released its 8 p.m. advisory Wednesday to report that the eye is passing about 50 miles north of Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Irma's winds are sustained at 185 mph and the storm is moving toward the west-northwest at 16 mph.

170906-nhc-irma-8pm-advisory.jpg

A map from the National Hurricane Center shows Irma's probable path as of 8 p.m. ET on Wed., Sept. 6, 2017.

 U.S. NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER

According to the latest advisory, hurricane warnings are in effect for:

  • British Virgin Islands
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Puerto Rico, Vieques, and Culebra
  • Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to the northern border with Haiti
  • Haiti from the northern border with the Dominican Republic to Le Mole St. Nicholas
  • Southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands
  • Central Bahamas

NHC says a hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area. Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.

NHC adds that hurricane watches may be issued Thursday for portions of the Florida Keys and Florida peninsula.

Hurricane Irma has had 185 mph winds longer than any other hurricane in recorded history, CBS News' weather producer David Parkinson reports.

Parkinson adds that although it appeared Irma had hit peak intensity earlier, it is going through another eyewall replacement cycle, which means the strongest winds will extend further from the storm. It is possible winds bump up to 190 mph Thursday.

"The storm has exceeded strength expectations thus far, and there is nothing ahead of the storm to indicate large scale weakening should take place," Parkinson writes. 

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."

CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil reported from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday night and says officials are expecting some parts of the island may face up to six months of no electricity in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Dokoupil said France, Great Britain and the Netherlands are sending emergency food and supplies as islanders all across the Caribbean begin to dig out and survey the devastation.

Puerto Rico's governor 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.

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 the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.

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.

Dokoupil met an 80-year-old man in the coastal village of Las Croabas who decided to ride Hurricane Irma in his sports bar with his wife and grandson.

"I know my house because I built it myself. This is a strong house," Agustin Moija told CBS News.

Elsewhere, 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."

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.

The NHC 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.

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. 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."

By early Sunday, Irma is expected to hit Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard members 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.

CBS News transportation correspondent Kris Van Cleave reports that Air Canada will send 24 flights to the Caribbean and Florida in the coming days to aid in evacuation efforts:

Van Cleave also points out that Delta Air Lines won't charge more than $399 for flights to and from southern Florida through Sept. 13.

Delta announced it is waiving all baggage and pet-in-cabin fees for customers traveling to or from the cities covered by a weather waiver issued for the region this week.

Experts now worry that Irma could rake the entire Florida east coast from Miami to Jacksonville and then head into Savannah, Georgia and the Carolinas, striking highly populated and developed areas.

"This could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happens two weeks ago," said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

Mayor of Miami-Dade County Carlos Gimenez activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days' worth of food and water.

Late Wednesday, Mayor Gimenez issued mandatory evacuation for zones A and B and the barrier islands. A map of evacuation zones can be downloaded here.

As Hurricane Irma looms, the Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday that it would not conduct non-criminal immigration enforcement operations in areas affected by the storm, Reuters reports.

"When it comes to rescuing people people in the wake of Hurricane Irma, immigration status is not and will not be a factor," they said in a statement.

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.

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, Tropical Storm Katia strengthened to a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico's coast.

And another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic became a hurricane Wednesday evening. Hurricane Jose posed no immediately threat to land but meteorologists warned the storm's path could change, according to the hurricane center. Jose had winds of 75 mph and was quickly strengthening.

CBS News' Parkinson says this is the first time since 2010 that we've had three named hurricanes all at once.

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