Florida is urging evacuations as the Category 5 storm makes its way to the U.S.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico —
Hurricane Irma, a record-breaking storm barreling its way through the Caribbean, is forcing evacuations as Florida preps for the worst.
Follow along for updates (all times ET).
3:30 p.m. French official reports 2 dead
France’s overseas minister is reporting at least two people are dead and two seriously injured after Irma crossed French-administered Saint Martin and St. Barthelemy.
In a translated report from French broadcaster BFMTV, Annick Girardin said communications are just beginning to return and lessening winds will make air reconnaissance easier.
Early reports suggested damage on parts of the smaller islands — a tropical region popular with tourists.
Barbuda, home to about 1,600 people, was “so badly damaged that there is no communication” from the island, said Keithley Meade, director of a meteorological office in Antigua and Barbuda.
“We have a lot of broken trees across the island,” Meade said from Antigua, whose 80,000 people comprise most of the two-island nation’s population.
Irma destroyed four of the most solid government buildings on the French-administered portion of nearby St. Martin, an island of about 75,000 people, French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said Wednesday in Paris.
It’s likely that all other older buildings there have at least been damaged, he said.
Roughly 10 of these smaller islands — such as St. Martin, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis — were pounded by hurricane conditions. One, Guadeloupe, has about 405,000 residents. The rest have about 264,400 people combined.
2 p.m. Irma shows no signs of slowing
Heavy rain and 185-mph winds lashed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico’s northeast coast Wednesday as Hurricane Irma roared through Caribbean islands on its way to a possible hit on South Florida.
The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico — a US territory of about 3.4 million people — 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.
Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal declared states of emergency in six coastal counties in the afternoon. Florida and South Carolina have already done the same for their entire states.
“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 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 & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever measured destroyed homes and flooded streets across a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean, passing directly over Barbuda and leaving the island of some 1,700 people incommunicado.
France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
While France received no immediate reports of casualties, the minister for French overseas territories, Annick Girardin, said: “We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn’t want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites … We’re preparing for the worst.”
By early Wednesday afternoon the center of the storm was east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and east of San Juan, Puerto Rico and heading west-northwest at 16 mph.
1:30 p.m. ‘Eerie but beautiful’
Among the people hunkered down ahead of Hurricane Irma is Richard Branson, the head of the Virgin Group.
Branson owns small Necker island in the British Virgin Islands and he’s posted a blog entry saying he and friends have “experienced a night of howling wind and rain as Hurricane Irma edges ever closer.”
He says “the atmosphere is eerie but beautiful.”
Like many in the region, Branson says he and his group will shelter indoors as the storm hits, though his guests may have it better than most. They’re headed for a concrete wine cellar.
He adds: “I suspect there will be little wine left in the cellar when we all emerge.”
12:37 p.m. State of emergency in South Carolina
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has declared a state of emergency in to help prepare for a possible strike early next week from Irma.
McMaster made the declaration Wednesday after the National Hurricane Center’s forecast on Irma’s track shifted east, putting the prospect of a major hurricane just off the coast of Florida about 200 miles away from Charleston by Monday morning.
The declaration allows the state to begin certain preparations for an emergency and allows McMaster to use the National Guard if necessary.
South Carolina evacuated much of its coast in October when Hurricane Matthew skirted the shoreline before coming ashore just north of Charleston.
The last major hurricane to hit South Carolina was Hugo in September 1989 with winds of 135 mph.
11:45 a.m. Irma’s destruction
Some of the first images of the devastation wrought by Irma are coming out after the storm blew through the eastern Caribbean. See the destruction in the video below.
At midday, the storm was nearing the Virgin Islands.