Hurricane Irma passes north of Puerto Rico, may reach Florida by Sunday

Current track shows Irma could make landfall in South Florida Sunday night

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist , Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. - Hurricane Irma made landfall Wednesday lashing the British Virgin Islands and claiming at least three lives in the French Caribbean and Barbuda. The Category 5 hurricane continued its track toward the Florida Keys and is projected to make landfall on Sunday.

The 8 p.m. track update from the National Hurricane Center still shows all of Florida in the cone through this weekend. Irma could arrive in South Florida as a Category 4 hurricane Sunday night and track up the eastern coast, according to the NHC.

The government has confirmed one death on Barbuda caused by Hurricane Irma.

Midcie Francis, spokesperson for National Office of Disaster Services for Antigua and Barbuda, said there has been massive destruction on the island of about 1,700 people.

"A significant number of the houses have been totally destroyed," said Lionel Hurst, the prime minister's chief of staff.

A French official said at least two people were killed by Hurricane Irma in French Caribbean territories.

The director of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency said the eye of Hurricane Irma is expected to be 35 miles from San Juan at 7 p.m. EST.

Abner Gomez said wind gusts of up to 100 mph could reach Puerto Rico's capital.

More than 600,000 people are without power and nearly 50,000 without water on Puerto Rico. Fourteen hospitals are using generators after losing power, and trees and lights posts are strewn across some roads.

The tiny island of Culebra currently reporting sustained winds of 88 mph and wind gusts of 110 mph.

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.

"We have to prepare for the worst," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. "If we don't, it could be devastating."

Puerto Rico's public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a deep economic crisis, and the agency's director warned that some areas could be without power for four to six months because the infrastructure has already deteriorated so badly. Outages were reported in some neighborhoods well ahead of the storm, with more than 285,000 homes without power and nearly 4,500 people without water by midafternoon Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were in shelters along with more than 100 pets.

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President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration this week for the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida. That means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.

Environmental Protection Agency officials said their biggest concerns were oil spills and power disruptions to water supply systems.

The eye of the hurricane passed over Sint Maarten with wind gusts recorded up to 110 mph to the west of Buck Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Dutch U.N. Ambassador Karel van Oosterom asked the United Nations to provide assistance during a General Assembly meeting Wednesday for the islands’ residents.

"First information indicates that a lot of damage has been done but communication is still extremely difficult,” van Oosterom said.

Video from Sint Maarten taken Wednesday showed extreme winds and damage to the island.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma's winds would fluctuate, but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it roared past Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Turks and Caicos islands and parts of the Bahamas.

Gov. Scott tells Florida to prep for Irma 'bigger, faster and stronger' than Andrew

Forecasts still show all of Florida inside the cone of uncertainty.

Florida is expected to start feeling Hurricane Irma's effects with tropical storm force winds as early as Sunday night, News 6 meteorologist Candace Campos said.

Marine conditions in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast will get rough starting Saturday with 10-to 20-foot seas.

Irma is expected to make landfall in South Florida and the upper Florida Keys early Sunday.

Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard members by Friday and warned that Irma is "bigger, faster and stronger" than Hurricane Andrew. Andrew pummeled south Florida 25 years ago and wiped out entire neighborhoods with ferocious winds. Trump also declared an emergency in Florida and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.

The Florida Keys are under a mandatory evacuation. Scott estimated that 25,000 people have already evacuated the Florida Keys.

"I cannot stress this enough. Do not ignore evacuation orders," Scott said. "Remember: You can rebuild your home. You cannot rebuild your life."

Central Florida schools started announcing school closures and opening sandbag locations Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Kennedy Space Center enacted a HURCON IV declaration by the Emergency Operation Center, meaning center managers are preparing facilities and their employees for 58 mph winds within 72 hours.

Under a HURCON declaration all normal operations stop to prepare for the storm, according to NASA.

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The mayor of Miami-Dade County said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most coastal areas as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days' worth of food and water.

Forecasters closely watching Irma

As Irma's eye pushed into Puerto Rico, forecasters are learning more about the powerful storm.

"We're getting a better look at the inside of the storm as it nears Puerto Rico," Campos said.

Hurricane hunters with the  U.S. Air Force Reserve 403rd Wing released video Wednesday from above the eye of the storm.

As the storm approaches, forecasters with the National Hurricane Center are watching the eye wall, the strongest region of the storm, to make better predictions.

"Models continue to shift east, but take that with a grain of salt," Campos said. "The forecast cone will also shift once they see consistencies across several model runs of the storm."

Irma will move north of Hispaniola by the end of the week and head into Cuba, likely interacting more with land over Cuba.

National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said Wednesday he's concerned about Florida up the East Coast to North Carolina, starting with the Florida Keys.

Uccellini warns that "all the hazards associated with this storm" are going to be dangerous.

Hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel, of Massachusetts Institute of Tehnology, calculates that Irma holds about 7 trillion watts — about twice the energy of all bombs used in World War II.

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