Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, churned across northern Caribbean islands on Wednesday with a catastrophic mix of fierce winds, surf and rain, en route to a possible Florida landfall at the weekend.
While Irma's trajectory is still uncertain, the storm has grown to the strongest Atlantic hurricane outside of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico in the U.S. National Hurricane Center's records, the NHC said.
The eye of Irma, a Category 5 storm packing winds of 185 miles per hour, passed over the island of Barbuda early Wednesday morning and moved northwest over St. Martin, an island east of Puerto Rico, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami reported. The storm's northern eyewall pounded the island of Anguilla, the NHC reported, and is currently moving west-northwest about 90 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Irma could make landfall in south Florida this weekend, and the NHC issued a warning for the state to "monitor the progress" of the storm, while noting that "it is too soon to specify the location and magnitude of these impacts."
"We are hunkered down and it is very windy ... the wind is a major threat," said Garfield Burford, the director of news at ABS TV and Radio on Antigua, who was caught when the storm passed over the island. "So far, some roofs have been blown off." The government of Antigua has since discontinued the hurricane warning.
Most people who were on Antigua and Barbuda were without power and about 1,000 people were spending the night in shelters in Antigua, according to Burford.
"It's very scary ... most of the islands are dark so it's very, very frightening," he said.
The NHC said the "core" of Hurricane Irma is "battering the Virgin Islands," and will cause water levels to rise 7 to 11 feet above ground over most of the islands if the peak surge occurs at high tide.
The eye of the hurricane already passed over Barbuda, an island with a population of about 1,600 people, according to ABS radio. The NHC also issued a hurricane warning for the north coast of Haiti on Wednesday morning.
"All hearts and all prayers and all minds go out to the Barbudans at this time because they experienced the full brunt," a radio host said on the station early on Wednesday. Public relations professional Alex Woolfall said on Twitter he was hiding underneath a concrete stairwell as the storm neared St. Martin.
"Still thunderous sonic boom noises outside and boiling in stairwell. Can feel scream of things being hurled against building," he said. "Okay I am now pretty terrified so can every non-believer, atheist & heretic please pray for me."
The amount of damage and the number of casualties were not known early on Wednesday. A 75-year-old man died while preparing for the storm in Puerto Rico's central mountains, police said.
Several other Leeward Islands, including Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, as well as the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were under a hurricane warning.
"Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the Hurricane Center said, warning that Irma "will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge and rainfall hazards" to those islands.
Puerto Rico's vulnerable energy infrastructure could leave the island without power for up to three months, depending on the direction the storm travels, according to Spanish-language news service EFE, which cited the country's state-owned energy agency.
Along the beachfront of Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, work crews scrambled to cover windows with plywood and corrugated metal shutters along Avenida Ashford, a stretch of restaurants, hotels and six-story apartments.
"I am worried because this is the biggest storm we have seen here," said Jonathan Negron, 41, as he supervised workers boarding up his souvenir shop.
President Donald Trump assured Americans via Twitter that he is "watching hurricane closely. My team, which has done, and is doing, such a good job in Texas, is already in Florida."
Trump approved declarations of emergency in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday, and ordered FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to direct relief efforts for the storm.
"In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Scott said in a news release on Monday, "and while the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared."
Monroe County, which covers Florida's southernmost towns including Key West and parts of Everglades National Park, issued a series of mandatory evacuations on Tuesday. The first, which began Wednesday morning, applied to all visitors, tourists and non-residents. A mandatory evacuation for all county residents will begin at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to the county's Facebook page.
Parts of Broward County were also evacuated, according to The Miami Herald.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello urged the 3.4 million residents of the U.S. territory to seek refuge in one of 460 hurricane shelters in advance of the storm and later ordered police and National Guard troops to begin evacuations of flood-prone areas in the north and east of the island.
"This is something without precedent," Rossello told a news conference.