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Winds of up to 185 mph lashed Barbuda, St. Martin and Anguilla as it threatened “potential catastrophe” over the British Virgin Islands on Wednesday.
US residents were warned not to travel to Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic amid fears the storm could spark life-threatening deluges, flash flooding and landslides across the Caribbean.
While hundreds of British tourists were forced to fly home to safety mid-way through Caribbean breaks.
Footage of deluges raging across St Martin and Guadeloupe have already emerged on social media.
Residents in Florida and Puerto Rico desperately raided supermarkets and boarded up buildings in a bid to stem the chaos of Irma – which has been rated as category 5, the most severe type of storm recorded.
Fears grew that the storm would smash “right into the middle of Florida” by the weekend as those living on low land were urged to flee their homes.
The state’s Governor Rick Scott said there would be more mandatory evacuations as Irma approached threatening tidal surges of up to reach 10 feet on the coast.
Authorities in the Florida Keys ordered a mass evacuation of tourists at sunrise on Wednesday.
Public schools throughout South Florida were also forced to close.
“We can rebuild your home, we can’t rebuild your life,” Mr Scott told ABC’s Good Morning America.
He added: “We don’t know exactly where this is going to hit.
“It sure looks like it’s going to bear down right in the middle of Florida.”
US President Donald Trump said on Twitter that he was monitoring the storm closely.
He approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and launched federal disaster relief efforts, the White House said.
Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello urged the island’s 3.4 million residents to seek refuge in one of 460 hurricane shelters.
Hundreds of storm watchers stood in wait as winds whipped the shoreline.
“I am worried. This is going to be a huge storm, bigger than I have ever seen,” said Angelica Flecha, 45.
Alex Woolfall said he was on island when the storm hit in the early hours of Wednesday morning local time.
The PR worker described the loud noise of Hurricane Irma “like a jet engine” as he crowded with others in the concrete stairwell for safety.
Tweeting at around 9.30am in the UK, PR worker Mr Woolfall said: “0430 now in #StMaarten and building shaking and howling winds. Scary stuff but still have power.
“Evacuated and everyone now hiding in concrete stairwell of building. Noise of wind insane. Pray this will end soon!”
Several other islands including Anguilla, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, as well as the US and British Virgin Islands, and the Dominican Republic were also hit with a hurricane warning.
In Paris, the French government said it had delivered water and food to two of its overseas territories, St Martin and St Barthelemy, and that emergency response teams would be sent once the storm had passed.
Power was knocked out on both islands, officials in Guadeloupe.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said at least four buildings were damaged, including the prefecture, a fire brigade barracks and a police building and that low-lying regions had been flooded.
“For now we’re not aware of any deaths,” Collomb told reporters in Paris.
French Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin said “there was much to fear” for citizens who had not heeded calls to seek safety in more secure buildings.
Irma could be the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years as the US National Weather Service said the island had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928.
San Felipe which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
The storm raged just weeks after Hurricane Harvey smashed into Texas and raged across the US killing more than 60 people and causing $180 billion worth of damage.
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