(CNN) — An extremely dangerous Hurricane Irma pounded tiny northern Caribbean islands Wednesday morning as one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic — and is on a path to hit parts of the British Virgin Islands and perhaps skirt northern Puerto Rico later in the day.
Irma’s core, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph — well above the 157 mph threshold of a Category 5 — slammed Barbuda early Wednesday before hitting St. Martin and Anguilla.
Virginia Barreras told CNN she was riding out the storm in a hotel in tiny St. Martin, an island of about 75,000 people.
“The palm trees are bent over and (I) can’t see anything but white,” she said early Wednesday, before Irma’s core passed over the island. “The walls shake when the wind blows hard, and we can hear debris being thrown around.
The Category 5 hurricane is “potentially catastrophic,” the National Hurricane Center said. Besides devastating winds, the center warns of high storm surges that could crush low-lying structures near shore.
Though Irma’s path is uncertain, forecasters have said it could turn toward Florida over the weekend, and officials there are ordering some evacuations and shutting down schools.
— Around 8 a.m. ET Wednesday, Irma’s core was spinning about 15 miles west-southwest of Anguilla, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph.
— After slamming St. Martin and Anguilla and St. Kitts and Nevis in the morning, the storm is expected to be near the British Virgin Islands and northern US Virgin Islands.
— The storm’s center is then expected to pass near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon or night.
— Irma is likely to turn toward the Turks and Caicos islands and the southeastern Bahamas, where storm surges of up to 20 feet are possible, the hurricane center said.
— It’s too early to tell whether it will make landfall on the US mainland, but forecasts show it could churn toward Florida over the weekend.
— People in Florida should heed any evacuation order, Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday. “(A) storm surge could cover your house. We can rebuild homes — we cannot rebuild your family,” he said.
— In the US Virgin Islands, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp ordered a 36-hour curfew that started at 6 a.m. local time Wednesday.
‘We’ve been hiding in the bathroom’
Irma affected many northern Caribbean islands Wednesday, even those not touched by the powerful core. In Marigot, Guadeloupe, Florida resident Loren Ann Mayo rode out the storm Wednesday morning on the sixth floor of a beachside hotel.
“We’ve been hiding in the bathroom,” she said in a video she posed to Facebook. About an inch of water covered parts of the floor, and pieces of drywall had fallen onto a balcony and a bed inside, she said.
Mayo was there on a business trip. “It is pouring down rain. It is howling,” she told CNN. “Most people are either in their bathroom, or they’ve been moved downstairs to the third floor where management thinks is a very, very safe spot.”
Forecasters are mostly concerned about the northeastern Caribbean, according to Michael Brennan of the hurricane center.
Islands under hurricane warning include Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Martin/St. Maarten, St. Barts, the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to the northern border with Haiti, Guadeloupe, the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
“The extremely dangerous core” of Irma was to move over parts of the northern Leeward Islands on Wednesday morning, near or over parts of the British Virgin Islands and northern US Virgin Islands later Wednesday ,and near or just north of Puerto Rico Wednesday afternoon or Wednesday night, the hurricane center said.
Storm surge is a concern for the Virgin Islands (up to 11 feet) and Puerto Rico (up to 5 feet), as is heavy rain (up to 10 inches in the Virgin Islands, and up to 15 in parts of Puerto Rico).
Puerto Rico: Long lines
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló declared a state of emergency and has activated the National Guard.
For hours, people lined up outside hardware stores, hoping to get plywood, batteries and power generators. If Irma knocks out power, Puerto Ricans said it could take weeks or months before it is restored.
Last month, the director of Puerto Rico’s power utility, Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez, said several factors have made the island’s electric system “vulnerable and fragile,” CNN affiliate WAPA reported.
One of those is the shortage of employees. Many workers recently retired or left their jobs for better prospects on the US mainland, Ramos Rodríguez said.
Evacuations set for Florida
Jimmy Brumbaugh packed up his family in their RV and left Astatula, Florida, for Georgia. As he headed out of town, he posted a picture showing a long line of cars, waiting to get gas.
“People are genuinely scared down here,” he said. “… We are dead center in the state, but I’m not taking any chances. I also don’t want to put my family through the misery of riding out the storm. We’ve done it before, and it’s horrible.”
In Eustis, northwest of Orlando, Pat Arnold and her husband took precautions in case Irma hit.
“My husband and I prepared for Irma by getting some cash out, fueling cars and filling gas cans with nonethanol gas (for use with our chainsaw if needed), … and making sure we have enough batteries, canned food, etc,” she told CNN.
From Miami Beach to Ocala, Floridians braced for the storm, with some posting images of empty shelves at local grocery stores.
Miami-Dade County will start evacuating special-needs residents Wednesday, and may announce other evacuations soon, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
Schools and county offices will be closed Thursday and Friday.
Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, was ordering visitors to evacuate by sunrise Wednesday, and residents should begin to evacuate 12 hours later.
After declaring a state of emergency across Florida, the governor said President Donald Trump had “offered the full resources of the federal government.”
Scott also ordered 7,000 National Guard troops to report for duty by Friday morning.
“Learn your evacuation zone. Listen to your locals,” he said. “This storm has the potential to devastate this state. You have to take this seriously.”
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Jose, in the open Atlantic far to the southeast of Irma, is expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night.
“Interests in the Leeward Islands should monitor the progress of Jose,” the National Hurricane Center said.
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