MARIGOT: Irma, a dangerous Category Four hurricane that is gaining in force, closed in on the Caribbean on Tuesday (Sep 5), sparking alarm and alerts from the French West Indies to Florida.
The monster hurricane coming on the heels of Hurricane Harvey that struck Texas and Louisiana late last month is expected to make landfall along the string of French islands including Guadeloupe late Tuesday before heading to Haiti and Florida.
The US National Hurricane Center said at 0900 GMT that the storm was packing top sustained winds of 150 mph (240 kmh).
Irma's centre was grinding westward at 14 miles per hour (22 kph) and located about 320 miles (515 km) east of the West Indies' Leeward Islands, the NHC said, urging that "preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion" in the region.
Schools and government offices in Guadeloupe have been ordered shut, while hospitals are stocking up on medicines, food and drinking water. People living on shorelines will be moved to safety, authorities said in the Guadeloupe capital Marigot.
Saint Barthelemy and St Martin islands, both popular holiday destinations, are expected to be especially hard hit.
The top French official of the islands, Anne Laubies, said the hurricane posed the greatest threat in 20 years, with more people endangered in flood-prone areas because of a rise in population.
THREAT TO FLORIDA
The governor of the US state of Florida, Rick Scott, declared a state of emergency, saying Irma posed "a severe threat to the entire state of Florida", barely a week after Harvey claimed at least 42 lives.
Long queues of people rushed to get batteries and bottled water, while many cut trees around their dwellings and sought to tie down objects and seal up their windows.
A Category Four storm on the Saffir Simpson scale is capable of doing widespread major structural and infrastructure damage. It can easily tear off roofing, shatter windows, uproot palm trees and turn them into projectiles that can kill people.
Irma is projected to make landfall late Tuesday or early Wednesday, bringing water levels up to nine feet (3 metres) above normal levels, rainfall of up to 10 inches (25 centimetres) in areas, and "large and destructive waves," the US National Hurricane Center warned.
Category-four strength was the maximum attained by Harvey, which dumped as many as 50 inches of rain in some parts of Houston, turning neighbourhoods into lakes and causing material damage estimated at around US$100 billion (€85 billion).
In Puerto Rico, a US territory of 3.5 million, Governor Ricardo Rossello activated the National Guard and announced the opening of storm shelters able to house up to 62,000 people.
The major of the Puerto Rican capital San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, ordered 900 municipal employees - police, emergency personnel, and aid and social workers - to report for rotating 12-hour shifts.
Even if Puerto Rico is spared a direct hit, the mayor said, three days of pounding rain will do heavy damage.
US CARRIER IN POSITION
A US aircraft carrier with a field hospital and dozens of aircraft able to conduct rescue or supply missions has been positioned protectively in the area, according to Alejandro de la Campa of the Caribbean division of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Local press identified the carrier as the USS Kearsarge.
Irma's precise path remains unclear. But several projections have it passing over the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before turning north toward Florida and then possibly swinging up the US East Coast.
Irma is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 3 to 6 inches (7.6-15 cm) across the islands of the northeastern Caribbean, with isolated maximum amounts of 10 inches (25 cm) across the northern section.