(CNN) — [Breaking news update, published at 10:26 a.m. ET]
Four of the strongest buildings on the Caribbean island of St. Martin have been destroyed by Hurricane Irma, French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said at a news conference Wednesday.
It’s likely that all other older buildings there have at least been damaged, he said.
About half of the island is a French overseas collectivity, and the remainder is a constituent country of the Netherlands.
[Original story, published at 10:17 a.m. ET]
An extremely dangerous Hurricane Irma pounded small northern Caribbean islands Wednesday morning as one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic — and is on a path to hit parts of the British Virgin Islands and perhaps skirt northern Puerto Rico later in the day.
Irma’s core, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph — well above the 157 mph threshold of a Category 5 — slammed Barbuda early Wednesday before hitting Saint Martin and Anguilla.
Barbuda, home to about 1,600 people, was “so badly damaged that there is no communication” from the island, said Keithley Meade, director of a meteorological office in Antigua and Barbuda.
“We have a lot of broken trees across the island,” Meade said from Antigua, whose 80,000 people comprise most of the two-island nation’s population.
Virginia Barreras told CNN she was riding out the storm in tiny Saint Martin — an island of about 75,000 people — in a “sanctuary hotel” where tourists and locals were encouraged to check in before the eye wall hit.
“The palm trees are bent over and (I) can’t see anything but white,” she said early Wednesday, before Irma’s core passed. “The walls shake when the wind blows hard, and we can hear debris being thrown around.
The Category 5 hurricane is “potentially catastrophic,” the National Hurricane Center said. Besides devastating winds, the center warns of high storm surges that could crush low-lying structures near shore.
Though Irma’s path is uncertain, forecasters have said it could turn toward Florida over the weekend, and officials there are ordering some evacuations and shutting down schools.
— Around 8 a.m. ET Wednesday, Irma’s core was spinning about 15 miles west-southwest of Anguilla, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph.
— After slamming St. Martin and Anguilla and St. Kitts and Nevis in the morning, the storm is expected to be near the British Virgin Islands and northern US Virgin Islands.
— The storm’s center is then expected to pass near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon or night.
— Irma on Thursday and Friday is likely to be near the Turks and Caicos islands and the southeastern Bahamas, where storm surges of up to 20 feet are possible, the hurricane center said.
— It’s too early to tell whether it will make landfall on the US mainland, but forecasts show it could churn toward Florida over the weekend.
— People in Florida should heed any evacuation order, Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday. “(A) storm surge could cover your house. We can rebuild homes — we cannot rebuild your family,” he said.
— In the US Virgin Islands, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp ordered a 36-hour curfew that started at 6 a.m. local time Wednesday.
— The season opener for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers has been postponed Sunday in Miami because of Irma. The game will instead be played in Miami on November 19.
‘We’ve been hiding in the bathroom’
Irma affected many northern Caribbean islands Wednesday, even those not touched by the powerful core. In Marigot, Guadeloupe, Florida resident Loren Ann Mayo rode out the storm on the sixth floor of a beachside hotel.
“We’ve been hiding in the bathroom,” she said in a video she posted to Facebook. About an inch of water covered parts of the floor, and pieces of drywall had fallen onto a balcony and a bed inside, she said.
Mayo was there on a business trip. “It is pouring down rain. It is howling,” she told CNN. “Most people are either in their bathroom, or they’ve been moved downstairs to the third floor where management thinks is a very, very safe spot.”
Forecasters are mostly concerned about the northeastern Caribbean, according to Michael Brennan of the hurricane center.
Islands under hurricane warning include Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Martin/St. Maarten, St. Barts, the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to the northern border with Haiti, Guadeloupe, the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Puerto Rico: Long lines
Storm surge is a concern for the Virgin Islands (up to 11 feet) and Puerto Rico (up to 5 feet), as is heavy rain (up to 10 inches in the Virgin Islands, and up to 15 in parts of Puerto Rico).
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló declared a state of emergency and has activated the National Guard.
For hours, people lined up outside hardware stores, hoping to get plywood, batteries and power generators. If Irma knocks out power, Puerto Ricans said it could take weeks or months before it is restored.
Last month, the director of Puerto Rico’s power utility, Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez, said several factors have made the island’s electric system “vulnerable and fragile,” CNN affiliate WAPA reported.
One of those is the shortage of employees. Many workers recently retired or left their jobs for better prospects on the US mainland, Ramos Rodríguez said.
Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas
Forecasters warn that Irma’s likely path will be near the Turks and Caicos Islands on Thursday and the southeastern Bahamas on Friday — and that the destruction could be devastating.
In the Bahamas, emergency evacuations have been ordered for six southern islands — Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island.
“This is the largest such evacuation in the history of the country,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said.
Bahamian officials also canceled vacation time for police and defense forces.
“Some of the (Bahamian) islands aren’t more than 9 feet (above sea level). Storm surges there may be 20 feet. You get the idea what’s going to happen to those islands,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Evacuations set for Florida
Jimmy Brumbaugh packed up his family in their RV and left Astatula, Florida, for Georgia. As he headed out of town, he posted a picture showing a long line of cars, waiting to get gas.
“People are genuinely scared down here,” he said. “… We are dead center in the state, but I’m not taking any chances. I also don’t want to put my family through the misery of riding out the storm. We’ve done it before, and it’s horrible.”
In Eustis, northwest of Orlando, Pat Arnold and her husband took precautions in case Irma hit.
“My husband and I prepared for Irma by getting some cash out, fueling cars and filling gas cans with nonethanol gas (for use with our chainsaw if needed), … and making sure we have enough batteries, canned food, etc,” she told CNN.
From Miami Beach to Ocala, Floridians braced for the storm, with some posting images of empty shelves at local grocery stores.
Miami-Dade County will start evacuating special-needs residents Wednesday, and may announce other evacuations soon, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
Schools and county offices will be closed Thursday and Friday.
Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, was ordering visitors to evacuate by sunrise Wednesday, and residents should begin to evacuate 12 hours later.
After declaring a state of emergency across Florida, the governor said President Donald Trump had “offered the full resources of the federal government.”
Scott also ordered 7,000 National Guard troops to report for duty by Friday morning.
“Learn your evacuation zone. Listen to your locals,” he said. “This storm has the potential to devastate this state. You have to take this seriously.”
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Jose, in the open Atlantic far to the southeast of Irma, is expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night.
“Interests in the Leeward Islands should monitor the progress of Jose,” the National Hurricane Center said.