Irma, at present a Category 5 storm packing maximum sustained winds of 285 km per hour, is moving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, the NHC says.
The hurricane has become a little less organised over the past few hours but the threat of direct hurricane impacts in Florida over the weekend and early next week continues to increase, the center says.
Hurricane watches were in effect for the northwestern Bahamas and much of Cuba.
At least eight people were reported killed on four different Caribbean islands by Irma, which weather forecasters have described as a “potentially catastrophic” Category 5 storm, the highest US classification for hurricanes.
The dual-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda was especially hard hit. The northernmost island, Barbuda, home to roughly 1,700 people, was “totally demolished,” with one person killed and 90 percent of all dwellings there leveled, Prime Minister Gaston Browne says, according to island television broadcasts.
Rain and high winds hit the French island territory of Saint Martin on Wednesday (September 6) as Hurricane Irma churned through the Caribbean.
Video shot inside Le Beach Hotel showed hallways flooded with water and debris carried in by the storm, and a deserted atrium with palm trees blowing in the wind.
Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, churned across northern Caribbean islands with a potentially catastrophic mix of fierce winds, surf and rain, en route to a possible Florida landfall at the weekend.
The eye of Irma, a Category 5 storm packing winds of 185 miles per hour (295 km per hour), moved away from the island of Barbuda and toward the island of Saint Martin, east of Puerto Rico, early on Wednesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami reported.
0:00 CNN’s George Howell on Hurricane Irma Share CNN’s George Howell on Hurricane Irma
Prime Minister Browne describes Barbuda as “barely habitable” after the powerful Category 5 storm struck early on Wednesday.
“This rebuilding initiative will take years,” Browne tells local ABS Television Radio after a visit to the island, where he confirmed one person died in the storm.
Describing the scene as “absolute devastation,” he said the storm, which also snapped a telecoms tower, had caused estimated damage of some $US150 million ($A187 million).
Another storm-related fatality, that of a surfer, was reported on Barbados.
At least six people have been killed in the French part of the Caribbean island St Martin after the hurricane tore through the region, Guadeloupe prefect Eric Maire said.
“This is not the final toll. We sadly risk further discoveries,” Maire tells journalists.
The previous toll given by France’s overseas ministry was two dead and two seriously injured on the eastern Caribbean islands St Barts and St Martin.
“It’s an enormous catastrophe. Ninety-five percent of the island is destroyed. I’m in shock. It’s frightening,” top local official on St Martin Daniel Gibbs tells local radio.
Irma, with top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (300 km/h), was on track to reach Florida on Saturday or Sunday, becoming the second major hurricane to hit the US mainland in as many weeks.
While Irma’s intensity could fluctuate, and its precise course remained uncertain, the storm was expected to remain at least a Category 4 before arriving in Florida.
⚠St-Martin et St-Barthélémy sont actuellement au cœur de l’ouragan #Irma, avec le passage de l’œil du #cyclone ▶ 长沙桑拿,长沙SPA,/2qQnReB4b8 pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/J7sRRyELb4
— Météo-France (@meteofrance) September 6, 2017
Two other hurricanes formed on Wednesday. Katia in the Gulf of Mexico posed no threat to the United States, according to US forecasters.
But Hurricane Jose in the open Atlantic, about 1,000 miles (1,610 km) east of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles islands, could also eventually threaten the US mainland.
The flurry of severe storm activity comes after Hurricane Harvey claimed about 60 lives and caused property damage estimated as high as $180 billion after pummeling the Gulf Coasts of Texas and Louisiana with torrential rains and severe flooding.
Florida emergency management officials, chastened by Harvey’s devastation, began evacuations days in advance of Irma’s arrival, ordering all tourists to leave the Florida Keys, a resort archipelago off the state’s southern tip, starting Wednesday morning.
Evacuation of residents from the Keys was to begin Wednesday evening.Image taken from a video posted on Facebook by Stefany Santacruz showing the view from her balcony as Hurricane Irma hits the Island of St Maarteen (Getty)Getty
In Cuba, just 90 miles (145 km) south of the Keys, authorities posted a hurricane alert for the island’s central and eastern regions.
The eye of Irma was passing just north of Puerto Rico late Wednesday, buffeting the US island territory’s capital, San Juan, with heavy downpours and strong winds that scattered tree limbs across roadways.
Earlier in the day, the storm passed over the northernmost Virgin Islands after crossing the half-French, half-Dutch island of St. Martin-St. Maarten, the US National Hurricane Center said.
Just spoke w/ Governors Rick Scott of Florida, Kenneth Mapp of the U.S. Virgin Islands & Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico. WE ARE W/ YOU ALL! pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/k92cslgKFa
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017
On its current path the core of Irma, which the Miami-based center said marked the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years, was expected to scrape the northern coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday.
It was on a track that would put it near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas by Thursday evening.
Karel van Oosterom, the Netherlands ambassador to the United Nations, said Irma had hit the Dutch islands of Saba and Sint Eustasius before overrunning St. Martin.
“First information indicates that a lot of damage has been done, but communication is still extremely difficult,” he said at a UN meeting.
0:00 Webcam in St Maarten captures full force of Irma Share Webcam in St Maarten captures full force of Irma
Irma began lashing Puerto Rico with rain at mid-morning. Governor Ricardo Rossello told residents to stay inside as the storm bore down on the island.
“There is no reason to be in the street,” Rossello told a midday press conference.
Businesses throughout San Juan were closed and many buildings were covered with storm shutters. Occasional shoppers were out making final purchases of water, ice and food to prepare for what they feared could be several days without power.
Power was knocked out on both islands, according to prefecture officials on Guadeloupe. At least four buildings were damaged and low-lying regions had been flooded, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said.
The UN World Food Program prepared to provide emergency aid to Haiti if it was hit by Irma. The country was ravaged by a 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew last year.
0:00 Trump praises first responders to Irma Share Trump praises first responders to Irma
US President Donald Trump said he and aides were monitoring Irma’s progress. “But it looks like it could be something that will be not good. Believe me, not good,” he told reporters at the White House.
Trump, whose waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, could take a direct hit from the storm, has already approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, mobilising federal disaster relief efforts.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said Irma could be more devastating than Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that struck the state in 1992 and still ranks as one of the costliest ever in the United States.
Residents of low-lying areas in densely populated Miami-Dade County were urged to move to higher ground.
“We can expect additional evacuations as this storm continues to come near our state,” Scott told a news conference in the Keys.
He said 7,000 National Guard troops would report for duty on Friday, ahead of the storm’s expected arrival.
In South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster also declared a state of emergency and urged residents to prepare for Irma’s potential landfall there.
Jose and Katia upgraded to hurricanes
Tropical storm Jose in the Atlantic Ocean has been upgraded to hurricane status, the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday.
Jose was 1,040 miles (1,675 kilometers) east of the Lesser Antilles and packing maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour), the NHC said.
It was considered a Category One hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale.
Tropical storm Katia in Gulf of Mexico has also been upgraded to a hurricane, forecasters say.