ORLANDO, Fla. - Hurricane Irma, which has strengthened to a Category 5 storm packing winds of 185 mph, is expected to slam the Caribbean and possibly the U.S. mainland this week.
The increasingly menacing storm would continue churning west in the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday, and meteorologists say Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands could begin to see its wrath by the end of the day, according to the National Hurricane Center.
As of Tuesday evening, the "dangerous major hurricane" was was centered about 250 miles east of Antigua and moving west at 15 mph.
Florida prepares for the worst, Trump grants emergency declaration
Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday he hopes the devastation in Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey does not repeat itself in Florida.
Scott requested a pre-emergency declaration for Florida ahead of the storm from the White House. Tuesday night President Trump approved that request, along with a request from Puerto Rico.
The emergency declaration will allow Florida and Puerto Rico to receive federal assistance for disaster relief.
The Florida Department of Transportation will suspend all tolls starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
All state officers will be closed across Florida starting Friday. The governor is also encouraging state employees to volunteer to help their fellow residents through the American Red Cross Disaster Services.
The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, or GOAA, said they are monitoring the storm's track and planning for how the Orlando International Airport will respond when and if the storm hits.
Flight cancellations are determined by the airlines, not the airport, GOAA spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said.
Officials in the Florida Keys issued a mandatory evacuation for visitors starting Wednesday at sunrise. Residents will also be required to leave, but officials did not say when those evacuations would begin.
“If ever there was a storm to take seriously in the Keys, this is it,” Monroe County Emergency Management director Martin Senterfitt said. “The sooner people leave, the better.”
There will be no shelters in Monroe County.
Landfall is expected early Wednesday on the island of Anguilla, the hurricane center said.
"The current track brings Irma to South Florida by Saturday," News 6 meteorologist Troy Bridges said. "Computer models want to take Irma on that sharp turn north through the end of the weekend and beginning of next week."
There's a large area of high pressure, as well as a trough, helping to steer Irma to the north in the coming days.
While Irma's exact path is still uncertain, several islands in the Caribbean as well as Florida are bracing for the storm.
After declaring a state of emergency all across Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said President Donald Trump had "offered the full resources of the federal government as Floridians prepare for Hurricane Irma."
"In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and while the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared," Scott said in a statement.
Hundreds of people rushed to the stores, emptying shelves of food and drinking water just as the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard on Monday.
For hours, people also lined up outside hardware stores hoping to get plywood, batteries and power generators. If Irma knocks out power, Puerto Ricans said they are worried it would take weeks or months before the power is restored.
"It (power) is something absolutely necessary, especially due to Puerto Rico's weather. We need to have the A/C or a fan on all night," a woman told CNN affiliate WAPA.
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," WAPA reported.
One of those factors is the shortage of employees. Many workers recently retired or left their jobs for better prospects in the US mainland, Ramos Rodríguez said.
Public schools and officials at the University of Puerto Rico campuses have canceled classes, and many businesses remain closed.
Puerto Rico and a string of Caribbean islands are under hurricane warnings, including the British and US Virgin Islands, Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Martin/Sint Maarten and St. Barts, the hurricane center said.
The warnings are usually issued to areas that could see "tropical-storm-force winds" of up to 140 mph in about 36 hours after the alert goes into effect.
"Make a U-turn and die in the ocean, Irma. The Caribbean islands don't need more problems!," Twitter user mujertropical wrote about the storm.
'Better safe than sorry'
By the weekend, it's possible that Irma could start heading to the eastern coast of Florida and also farther up the East Coast, Javaheri said.
"Everyone wants to see this at least meander away from the United States. The strength, the positioning, the timing of that troughs coming in to the eastern coast line will dictate exactly where Irma ends up," Javaheri said.
In Miami, supermarkets are already selling out on water and non-perishable food. People are trying to beat the rush in case Irma makes landfall in Florida.
"I've been through hurricanes and they're like, 'Oh, it's going to hit right here' and then it hits 30, 40 miles up the coast and it kind of changes the way everything goes so, better safe than sorry," Florida resident Greg Andrews told News 6 partner WPLG-TV in Miami.
OneBlood calls for donations
With the threat of Irma, OneBlood is calling for immediate donations ahead of the storm.
For a list of places where you can donate, you can visit OneBlood's website.
Why Irma could be especially intense
Irma is a classic "Cape Verde hurricane," meaning it formed in the far eastern Atlantic, near the Cape Verde Islands (now known as the Cabo Verde Islands), before tracking all the way across the Atlantic, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
And Cape Verde storms frequently become some of the largest and most intense hurricanes. Examples include Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Ivan.
#Irma is still several days away from a potential impact to FL, but many aren't taking chances and preparing now. https://t.co/U1Fb2UMBwt pic.twitter.com/3ktMD0uSY6 — Mark Lehman (@MarkLehman6) September 5, 2017
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