Hurricane Irma Strengthens as it Heads Toward Leeward Islands

The newest hurricane that could threaten North America intensified Monday morning, though its future path remains uncertain.

As of 8 a.m. ET, Hurricane Irma was about 610 miles (980 kilometers) east of the Leeward Islands, the National Hurricane Center said. It’s packing maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph) as it headed west-northwest at 14 mph (22 kph).

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The islands of Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts, Saint Martin and Nevis, at the eastern edge of the Caribbean, are now under hurricane watches. More hurricane or tropical storm watches could follow for the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

“Swells generated by Irma will begin affecting the northern Leeward Islands today,” the NHC said Monday. “These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.”

Puerto Ricans warned

Irma is expected to remain a “dangerous major hurricane” through the week and could directly affect the British and US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas, the agency said.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned the public on Sunday that the island could feel Irma’s wrath around noon Wednesday.

Puerto Rico’s State Agency for the Management of Emergencies and Disaster Management (AEMEAD) is monitoring Irma and has opened an information hotline.

Florida governor says be prepared

It’s too soon to know the impact Irma could have on the continental United States, where no warnings or watches are currently in effect.

“Regardless, everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place, as we are now near the peak of the season,” the National Hurricane Center said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged the state’s residents to ensure their disaster supply kits were ready.

“FL knows how important it is to be prepared. Encourage your loved ones to have a plan ahead of any potential storm,” Scott tweeted Sunday. “Disaster preparedness should be a priority for every Florida family.”

Read: Hurricane Irma could be next weather disaster

Why Irma could be especially intense

Irma is a classic “Cape Verde hurricane,” meaning it formed in the far eastern Atlantic, near the Cape Verde Islands (now known as the Cabo Verde Islands), then tracks all the way across the Atlantic, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.

And Cape Verde storms frequently become some of the largest and most intense hurricanes. Examples include Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Floyd, and Hurricane Ivan.