Hurricane Irma: Hundreds of holiday makers flown home and thousands of flights cancelled as storm rages towards Caribbean

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Hundreds of British holiday makers have been forced to abandon Caribbean getaways early while thousands of flights from the UK have been cancelled as Hurricane Irma wreaks havoc across the Atlantic.

The devastating storm, which is sweeping across the islands towards the US coast, was today upgraded to category 5 making it one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the region.

The US’s National Hurricane Centre described Irma as “potentially catastrophic” as gusts measured 185 mph.

Areas hit by Irma are expected to be lashed with as much as 10 inches of rain, leading to landslides, flash floods and waves of up to 23 feet.

Category 5 storm: Hurricane Irma is set to hit Florida at the weekend (EPA)

Irma comes just days after Hurricane Harvey caused devastation and flooding in the states of Texas and Louisiana and left at least 66 people dead.

Puerto Rico, which handles a lot of transfer flights to the Caribbean, has declared a state of emergency, as has Florida.

Antigua airport will be closed on Wednesday and San Juan airport, the busiest in Puerto Rico, has cancelled about 40 per cent of its flights in response to the hurricane.

Empty shelves: Shoppers ransacked a supermarket as they prepared for Hurricane Irma (Getty Images)

British Airways sent an empty aircraft to the region to bring customers back early – the full flight of 326 passengers touched down in the UK on Tuesday evening.

It also cancelled a flight from the UK heading to Antigua and then on to Tobago.

BA said in a statement: “The safety of our customers and colleagues is always our priority.

Record winds: Palm trees hit by winds and rain in San Juan, Puerto Rico (EPA)

“We are in contact with travellers in the region and laid on a special flight from Antigua today to get as many customers home as possible before the hurricane arrives on the island.

“The Antigua and St Kitts airport authorities have advised us that their airports will be closed tomorrow.

“We have offered all customers due to travel to the Caribbean and Florida in the coming days a range of re-booking options and are keeping our flights to the entire region under review.”

Storm preparations: People line up to get their propane tanks filled as they prepare for Hurricane Irma (Getty Images)

Virgin Atlantic also changed its return schedules, and a flight leaving Antigua on Tuesday left five hours early to avoid the storm.

The airline urged all customers to check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport, and offered all those affected by the storm the option to rebook their flights on alternative dates.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Britons to follow the advice of the local authorities and any evacuation orders.

Briton Carolyne Coleby, who runs a guest house on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, said locals were desperately trying to secure their houses with boards and remove any potential debris from outside spaces.

She told the Press Association: “The winds are starting to pick up and the clouds are coming in.

“We had a sunny morning but the storm’s definitely on its way – it’s going to be spectacularly unpleasant.”

Ms Coleby, who also runs a turtle conservation project, has sheltered her herd of 20 goats in her house to save them from the worst of the storm.

“People are now just boarding up and clearing their gardens of any potential flying objects,” she said. 

“I had a sleepless night. I was very worried – I spent the night on the internet.

“It’s going to be the strongest hurricane ever to cross the Atlantic. I’ve no idea what to expect.”

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