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The US National Hurricane Centre said the storm roaring towards the northeast Caribbean has built up 185 mph winds, making it the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and triggering fears it could be worse than Hurricane Harvey.
Flights from Britain to the region have been disrupted with a string of cancellations and British Airways sending an empty plane to Antigua to bring back 326 Britons home early from their vacations.
Last night, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Britons to follow the advice of the local authorities and any evacuation orders.
Puerto Rico, a key flight transfer hub for holiday flights, and Florida, one of the world’s top destinations for British tourists, have declared states of emergency.
“The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death,” warned Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “This is an extremely dangerous storm.”
With Irma upgraded to a strong Category 5, officials were preparing evacuation orders for South Florida today as long lines formed at grocery stores and petrol stations.
Forecasters warned it was still building as it neared the eastern-most Caribbean islands. The most immediate threat is to the small islands of the northern Leewards, including Antigua and Barbuda, as well as the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
It is expected to hit land in the US at the weekend. Visitors to the Florida Keys will be told to leave today and residents will be evacuated tomorrow. Schools have been closed until further notice.
President Trump approved a federal emergency declaration for Florida ahead of the storm, freeing up federal funds. State Governor Rick Scott said the storm was likely to be “extreme and life threatening.”
“This storm has the potential to devastate this state, and you have to take this seriously,” he added. “Remember: We can rebuild your home; we cannot rebuild your life.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez urged tourists to cut their holidays short and said residents may be asked to leave.
“The potential is too great for us not to take action right now,” he said. Locals said they were ordering water from Amazon online because shops had sold out.
Hurricane Irma was said to be so powerful yesterday that it was registering on devices designed to detect earthquakes. The strength is a result of unusually warm water for that part of the Atlantic.
In addition to Irma, Tropical Storm Jose has now formed behind it. Jose is the 10th tropical storm of the season and has maximum sustained winds of 40 mph.
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