Hurricane Irma strengthens to Category 5, barrels toward Caribbean, southern U.S.

Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm as it roars toward the northeast Caribbean on a path to the U.S. mainland.

Irma’s maximum sustained winds increased to 280 km/h early Tuesday. It was centred about 440 kilometres east of Antigua and moving west at 22 km/h.

Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 25 centimetres of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 7 metres. Government officials began evacuations in certain islands.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that all decisions taken in the next couple of hours would make a difference between life and death.

Empty shelves - Irma

A woman looks for candles in a supermarket in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, on Monday, trying to prepare the for arrival of Hurricane Irma. (Helene Valenzuela/AFP/Getty Images)

States of emergency were declared in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and all of Florida.

American Airlines added extra flights out of two Caribbean islands to get people out of the path of Hurricane Irma, a powerful Category 5 storm.

The flights were added in St. Maarten and St. Kitts and Nevis. Those are in addition to regularly scheduled flights Tuesday and Wednesday to Miami. American says it expects to make additional flight changes as it monitors the storm.

Hurricane Irma

People buy materials at a hardware store after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Irma. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

The U.S. National Weather Service said in an advisory on Monday: “Preparations should be rushed to completion as tropical storm-force winds are expected to arrive in the hurricane warning area by late Tuesday.”

In preparation for the storm, the government of economically struggling Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard on Monday.

The U.S. island territory, home to about 3.4 million people, has 456 emergency shelters prepared to house up to 62,100 people. Puerto Rico also activated a price freeze on basic necessities, including food and water, medicines, power generators and batteries, to help residents prepare.

Hurricane Irma

This satellite image Monday shows Hurricane Irma nearing the eastern Caribbean. Hurricane Irma grew into a powerful Category 5 storm Tuesday. (NOAA/Associated Press)

The executive director of the state power authority, Ricardo Ramos, told the station that the power grid was so vulnerable from lack of investment that parts of the U.S. territory could be without power for three to four months.

“We’re preparing for the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Too early for certainty

Irma also threatens the U.S. East Coast and Florida, which declared a state of emergency on Monday night. The hurricane centre expects Irma to reach southern Florida on Saturday.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said on Twitter late on Monday he had spoken to U.S. President Donald Trump, who he said “offered the full resources of the federal government as Floridians prepare for Hurricane Irma.”

The NHC cautioned that it was too early to forecast the storm’s exact path or what effects it might have on the continental United States, but warned of likely effects to hit some areas by later this week.

“There is an increasing chance of seeing some impacts from Irma in the Florida Peninsula and the Florida Keys later this week and this weekend. In addition, rough surf and dangerous marine conditions will begin to affect the southeastern U.S. coast by later this week,” the centre said.

Irma will be the second powerful hurricane to thrash the United States and its territories in as many weeks. Residents of Texas and Louisiana are still reeling from the catastrophic effects of the deadly Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25 and dumped several feet of rain, destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

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