(CNN)Category 5 Hurricane Irma has become one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic, and is threatening to slam into Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with “potentially catastrophic” force on Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said.
It’s too early to tell how and whether the storm will affect the US mainland, but current forecast tracks show it could turn toward Florida over the weekend.
Irma was churning west Tuesday afternoon in the Atlantic with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph — well above the 157 mph threshold for a Category 5 — about 180 miles east of Antigua and Barbuda, the hurricane center said.
The last storm with sustained winds that strong in the Atlantic was 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, which weakened before it brushed Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and crossed Florida. Its Atlantic wind speeds are behind only 1980’s Hurricane Allen, which peaked at 190 mph at sea.
Irma’s forecast track currently has it near or over Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Anguilla by late Tuesday or early Wednesday, and the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon.
Preparations to protect life and property in those areas “should be rushed to completion,” the hurricane center said in a 2 p.m. ET advisory.
“We could see storm surges of 7 to 11 feet — that’s certainly life-threatening — and very, very heavy flooding rainfall” in the far northeastern Caribbean islands as well as winds that could cause catastrophic damage near the eye wall, the hurricane center’s Michael Brennan said.
Computer models show the system possibly near the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Thursday and Friday, and Cuba on Friday and Saturday — and potentially turning north toward Florida by the weekend.
While Irma’s exact path is uncertain, Florida — where storm-wary shoppers were standing in long lines outside some stores Tuesday — is bracing for the storm.
Miami-Dade County will start evacuating special-needs residents on Wednesday, and may announce other evacuations soon, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
“I would rather inconvenience our residents” with evacuations than suffer loss of life, Gimenez said.
And the state’s Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, said it will order visitors to evacuate by sunrise Wednesday, and said it expects to announce an evacuation for residents soon.
After declaring a state of emergency across Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said President Donald Trump had “offered the full resources of the federal government as Floridians prepare for Hurricane Irma.”
Scott also ordered 7,000 National Guard troops to report for duty by Friday morning. Of those, 100 were activated Tuesday to begin helping with preparations, he said.
“We do not know the exact path of this storm, but weather can change in an instant and while we hope for the best, we must prepare for the worst,” Scott said in a statement.
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