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Hurricane Irma Roars Over First Caribbean Islands

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ST. JOHN’S, Antigua (CBSMiami/AP) — The most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history battered Babuda overnight before making its way to St. Martin.

The eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 1:47 a.m., the U.S. National Weather Service said. Residents said over local radio that phone lines went down. Heavy rain and howling winds also raked the neighboring island of Antigua, sending debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.

Officials warned people to seek protection from Irma’s “onslaught” in a statement that closed with: “May God protect us all.”

In Barbuda, the storm ripped the roof off the island’s police station forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands.

Hon. Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, issued a statement after Irma had passed which read in part, “My first words must be of thanks. Thanks to Almighty God in all his forms for standing at our side at a time of great adversity.

It went on.

“We in Antigua have weathered the most powerful hurricane ever to storm its way through the Caribbean. And we have done so with stunning results. The forecast was that Antigua would be devastated, our infrastructure demolished, people killed and our economy destroyed.

In the light of day, the picture is very different. In Antigua, no life has been lost – all the people survived. Our airport will be open for flights into and out of Antigua by 2pm today. The people of Antigua should all be very proud of the part that each of them played in our impressive story of readiness and resilience.”

The National Office of Disaster Services confirmed there was damage to several homes, but said it was too early to assess the extent of damage.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, according to the Hurricane Center. It said winds would likely fluctuate slightly, but the storm would remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two. The most dangerous winds, usually nearest to the eye, were forecast to pass near the northern Virgin Islands and near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

“I hear it’s a Cat 5 now and I’m terrified,” Antigua resident Carol Joseph said Tuesday as she finished her last trip to the supermarket before seeking shelter. “I had to come back for more batteries because I don’t know how long the current will be off.”

On the 108-square-mile island, people who live in low-lying areas were staying with friends and relatives on higher ground or sleeping in churches, schools and community facilities built to withstand hurricanes. None of the shelters had yet been tested by Category 5 winds, however.

Many homes in Antigua and Barbuda are not built on concrete foundations or have poorly constructed wooden roofs.

President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.

The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see normal tide levels rise by as much as 11 feet, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see surge of 20 feet and higher waves later in the week, forecasters said.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating six islands in the south because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the “potentially catastrophic” wind, flooding and storm surge. People there would be flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country’s history.

“The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm,” Minnis said.

The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.

“The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “A lot of infrastructure won’t be able to withstand this kind of force.”

The director of the island’s power company has warned that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for about a week to as long as six months.

The eye of the storm was expected to rip westward on a path taking it a little north of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.

The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see 10 inches of rain, with as much as 20 inches in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.

The storm seemed almost certain to hit the United States by early next week.

“You’d be hard pressed to find any model that doesn’t have some impact on Florida.” said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
In Florida, people stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 National Guard members were to report for duty Friday when the storm could be approaching the area. On Monday, Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida’s 67 counties.

Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma’s path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade County said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most coastal areas.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days’ worth of food and water.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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