Hurricane Irma Slams into Caribbean: 185mph winds batter Saint Martin and St Barthelemy as the MOST powerful storm to hit the Atlantic rages towards US East Coast amid mass evacuation of Florida Keys

  • Hurricane Irma strengthened to Category 5 storm sparking evacuations from Caribbean and the Florida Keys
  • The Red Cross said it is preparing for 'a major humanitarian response' after 'extremely worrying' forecasts
  • Irma has sustained winds of 185mph, making it the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean
  • Slammed in to Leeward Islands today and is set to hit Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Cuba
  • Leeward Islands officials warned of Irma's 'onslaught' in a statement that closed with: 'May God protect us all' 
  • Still unclear where storm will hit in the U.S.  but it could make landfall in Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas 
  • Florida Governor Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency on Monday for all 67 counties in the state

 Mass evacuations are underway today after Hurricane Irma slammed into the Caribbean with 185mph winds as aid agencies braced for a 'major humanitarian response'. 

America's National Hurricane Center said Irma had strengthened into a dangerous Category 5 storm as it made its first landfall in islands of northeast Caribbean on a path that could take it to the United States - causing thousands to start panic buying and preparing to evacuate.

This morning, the eye of the 'potentially catastrophic' hurricane - estimated to be the size of France - lashed Barbuda just hours after officials warned people to seek protection from Irma's 'onslaught' in a statement that closed with: 'May God protect us all.'

Heavy rain and howling winds from the hurricane - measured as the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean - also raked Antigua, sending debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters. 

Officials said the French islands Saint-Barthelemy and Saint-Martin have also been 'battered extremely violently' with even sturdy government buildings destroyed.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate the residents of six islands at the southern end of the island chain.  A mandatory evacuation is under way in the Florida Keys.

Experts say Irma is now so powerful it is registering on devices designed to detect earthquakes. Scientists picked up the background noise of winds causing trees to move and crashing ocean waves on their earthquake-detecting seismometers. 

In addition to Irma, Tropical Storm Jose has now formed behind it in the open Atlantic and is expected to develop into a hurricane. A third tropical storm - Katia - has also formed in the Gulf of Mexico with winds but is expected to stay offshore until Friday morning. 

Hurricane Irma strengthened into a powerful Category 5 storm on Tuesday night as aid agencies braced for a 'major humanitarian response'. Above, a satellite view of the storm this morning

Boats were capsized and thrown together by fierce 185mph winds as the hurricane tore through Saint Martin overnight

The Red Cross this morning said it is preparing for 'a major humanitarian response'.

'The forecast as it stands right now is extremely worrying,' said Walter Cotte, the agency's Regional Director for the Americas. 'We are anticipating major impacts on a number of islands, and we are preparing to respond to needs that may arise. 

'We are especially worried that Irma could affect areas that have been suffering with severe rainfall in the past months.

'One of the main challenges is going to be logistical, given the isolation of some the islands. We need to ensure a reliable channel for relief efforts in the aftermath of the hurricane.'

Four other storms have had winds that strong in the overall Atlantic region, but they have been in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico where the usually warmer waters fuel tropical cyclones. 

Experts say Irma's strength is a result of unusually warm water for that part of the Atlantic. 

The center said there was a growing possibility that the storm's effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track: 'Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place.'

So far, a state of emergency has been called in the state and a mandatory evacuation is under way in the Florida Keys.  Schools there are also cancelled until further notice. 

Governor Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 more National Guard members were to report for duty on Friday when the storm could be approaching.

Pictures showed people rushing to stock up on drinking water, protective wooden boards for their windows and other supplies.

Meanwhile, tourists have had their Caribbean holiday plans thrown into chaos as Hurricane Irma forces airlines to ground or divert flights.

Antigua airport will be closed on Wednesday and San Juan airport, the busiest in Puerto Rico, has cancelled about 40 per cent of its flights in response to the hurricane.

British Airways sent an empty aircraft to the region to bring customers back early - the full flight of 326 passengers touched down in the UK on Tuesday evening.

It also cancelled a flight from the UK heading to Antigua and then on to Tobago.

British holidaymakers on Caribbean islands have described barricading themselves into hotels and villas as authorities in other areas order mass evacuations.

Alex Woolfall, who is staying on the island of St Maarten, told how he and other holidaymakers huddled in the concrete stairwell of their hotel as the 'apocalyptic' noise of the winds roared outside.

He tweeted: 'Still thunderous sonic boom noises outside & boiling in stairwell. Can feel scream of things being hurled against building.' 

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Britons to follow the advice of the local authorities and any evacuation orders. 

Pope Francis flew out of Italy today headed for Colombia, with his plane forced to change route because of Irma. The Alitalia aircraft had been expected to fly over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, but will instead shift south and cross the islands of Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad, a Vatican official said.

Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet.

Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as shelves emptied out across islands including Puerto Rico.

'The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death,' Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. 'This is an extremely dangerous storm.' 

Residents on the U.S. East Coast were urged to monitor the storm's progress in case it should turn northward toward Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

'This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of (Hurricane) Harvey,' Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement.  

Florida Governor Rick Scott declared the state of emergency for all 67 counties in the state on Monday after some forecasts showed the powerful storm could be headed for the East Coast. 

'Hurricane Irma is a major and life-threatening storm and Florida must be prepared. I have continued to be briefed by the Florida Division of Emergency Management on Hurricane Irma and current forecast models have Florida in Irma's path - potentially impacting millions of Floridians,' Scott said. 

'Today, given these forecasts and the intensity of this storm, I have declared a state of emergency for every county in Florida to make certain that state, federal and local governments are able to work together and make sure resources are dispersed to local communities as we get prepared for this storm.' 

He also ordered the suspension of road tolls across the state and activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to prepare for Hurricane Irma.

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