Most powerful hurricane ever in Atlantic churns off Puerto Rico

'It is too early to determine' direct impacts
Ellis Cerda puts up storm shutters at a boutique in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Ellis Cerda puts up storm shutters at a boutique in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — As Hurricane Irma, considered the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, aimed for Puerto Rico and other islands throughout the Caribbean, residents scrambled Tuesday to rush out of flood zones, stock up on the last available water, food and gas, shutter their homes and brace for what is now, and could remain, a mammoth Category 5 hurricane.

“We have to prepare for an event that we have never experienced here,” said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico at a news conference, as he went on to call the hurricane’s arrival imminent and its potential catastrophic.

Packing winds of up to 185 mph, Irma threatened havoc and widespread destruction across Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million people, the nearby island of Hispaniola (home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, among others. Cuba is also threatened. The storm is expected to rake or sideswipe Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday.

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Hurricane Irma is the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the National Hurricane Center and Bryan Norcross, the hurricane specialist at The Weather Channel. The hurricane center said Irma had winds of up to 185 mph as it approached the Leeward Islands. There have been other storms with comparable winds in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, where the warm waters fuel particularly dangerous hurricanes.

With Harvey’s destruction still fresh on people’s minds, Florida hustled into action. Gov. Rick Scott activated the state National Guard to help with hurricane preparations and suspended tolls. The governor declared a state of emergency on Monday and spoke with Trump, who offered “the full resources of the federal government,” Scott wrote on Twitter.

Most of the latest projections have Irma slamming into the state by Sunday, although it is unclear where it may make landfall.

The Florida Keys, an especially vulnerable chain of islands, moved quickly to prepare for the crushing wind and its expected tidal inundation. On Wednesday, schools will be closed and mandatory evacuations will begin, county officials said. The Keys’ three hospitals started to evacuate patients on Tuesday.

Miami-Dade, the state’s largest county, announced that schools would close Thursday as officials kicked emergency plans into gear.

But it is Puerto Rico and the nearby northern Leeward islands that are expected to face Irma’s potentially catastrophic winds first. It has been nearly a century since Puerto Rico was hit by a Category 5 storm, Norcross said.

Puerto Rican officials have warned that the island’s fragile electrical grid could be shut down for days, weeks or even months in some areas. In his news conference, Rosselló and emergency officials warned that with such powerful winds expected to thrash the island, infrastructure, houses and the phone system will inevitably be damaged.

For Puerto Rico, the hurricane could not have come at a worse time. The island is deep in the throes of an economic crisis and does not have money for the long process of rebuilding.

“This is not going to be easy,” said Héctor Pesquera, the superintendent of public security in Puerto Rico.

Abner Gómez Cortés, the head of Puerto Rico’s emergency agency, warned that coastal zones were particularly vulnerable — not so much because of rain, as with Harvey, but because of high storm surges of up to 20 feet.

On Tuesday, the lines for fast-dwindling gas, food, water and hardware were interminable and anxiety mounted. One hardware store in San Juan had been nearly picked clean by afternoon.

“This has been like this for the last three days,” said Juan Carlos Ramirez, the store manager. “We’ve sold all of the most necessary items — flashlight, batteries, plywood.”

People standing in line said one their biggest worries was the expected loss of electricity for long periods. “The infrastructure can’t cope with a hurricane,” Ashley Albelo, a shopper, said.

Outside a Sears, Maria Ruiz could not help but remember Hurricanes Hugo and George, which badly damaged Puerto Rico. “Destruction,” she said. “That is what we can expect based on past experiences, and it’s already a Category 5.’’

Similar frantic scenes played out on other nearby islands. In Antigua, southeast of Puerto Rico, many businesses were closed. Supermarkets were overrun and gas stations were packed.

Some island residents sounded stoic and battle-tested. In Guadeloupe, Coralice Line, who was attending the front desk at the Le Creole Beach Hotel & Spa, said she was not particularly distressed. “We are not too worried because we are accustomed to it,” she said by phone from the hotel. “Hurricanes are part of life in the Caribbean islands.”

At the Sugar Bay Club hotel in St. Kitts and Nevis, Ophelia Gardiner, the front-desk supervisor, said that while some guests had fled the island on an American Airlines flight, others had decided to stay and ride out the storm.

“Everything is boarded up and put away and all we have to do is wait and see what happens,” Gardiner said. She laughed nervously. “I don’t know how you can prepare for a hurricane of that magnitude but we’re doing our best.”

In Miami-Dade County, which is still haunted by the ferocity and wreckage of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, residents worried and began to prepare earlier than usual. For some, a sense of panic began to set in. Many hotels across Florida had already been booked for the weekend by hurricane-wary residents. Most stores had run out of water, flashlights and other key supplies. Gas stations ran out of fuel.

Hurricane Harvey in Texas also weighed heavily on people’s minds.

“I think because of Texas, people are freaking out,” said Yoseyn Ramos, 24, a Miami resident who said she was worried because she could not find gas anywhere.

In Brickell, a Miami neighborhood that abuts both the Atlantic and the Miami River, Lucas Mattout, 22, was dashing around Publix supermarket looking for water. “They are all sold out,” he said. “Of course, with Harvey, no one wants to take a chance.”

Every storm, though, has its rebels. Jose Fonseca, 52, a Coral Gables resident who works at the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key, said he had not done or bought anything to prepare for the storm.

“I think people are panicking because of the news from Texas day after day,” he said. “I will buy some water.” Then, he added, “And some beer of course.”

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