Less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana, another "potentially catastrophic" storm was bearing down on the Caribbean and could threaten Florida later in the week, the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday.
Hurricane Irma had strengthened into a Category 5 storm, one of the most powerful ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, with maximum winds close to 185 mph, according to the weather service in Miami. Only Hurricane Allen in 1980 was more intense, with winds peaking at 190 mph.
Irma was expected to remain a Category 4 or 5 storm for days as it barrels through the Caribbean, bringing life-threatening wind, rain and storm surges to some of the northern Leeward Islands as soon as late Tuesday, and to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
Although it was too soon to be certain of the storm's future path, the hurricane center said, "the chance of direct impacts from Irma later this week and this weekend is increasing in the Florida Keys and portions of the Florida peninsula."
"Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place," the National Hurricane Center said in a statement.
Officials from Puerto Rico to South Florida urged residents to begin planning evacuations, as store shelves emptied out on some islands.
"The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, according to the Associated Press. "This is an extremely dangerous storm."
With Texas still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, which drenched the region with record-shattering rain and was blamed for at least 60 deaths, authorities in Florida told residents to prepare for the worst.
Officials in Monroe County, where the Florida Keys are located, said they would be issuing mandatory evacuation orders, but urged tourists and residents not to wait and risk getting stuck in traffic.
"My wife is leaving the Keys today; she would rather go to the dentist than sit in traffic," said Martin Senterfitt, the Monroe County emergency management director. "The sooner people leave the better. If ever there was a storm to take serious in the Keys, this is it."
Key West International Airport was scheduled to close Wednesday night, and all tolls were suspended on Florida roadways until further notice.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Monday for all 67 counties and on Tuesday, activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard, directing all 7,000 members to report for duty on Friday.
Scott also asked President Trump to declare a pre-landfall emergency for Florida, which would bring federal aid that could be used for protective measures such as shoring up beach dunes, building emergency berms and planning for potential evacuations, according to a statement from the governor's office.
"With Hurricane Irma now a Category 5 storm, we must do all we can to prepare our families and communities for any potential impact from this major weather event," Scott told reporters in Naples, Fla. "While we hope for the best, we must prepare for the worst."
Residents from Tallahassee to Miami heeded the governor's call, swarming gas stations, grocery stores and hardware outlets to prepare for the storm.
In St. Petersburg, on Florida's Gulf Coast, residents jammed a Home Depot, carting out sheets of plywood and other supplies to protect their windows.
Russell Arsenault, a self-employed tradesman, emerged from the store loaded with a stack of plywood and solar boards. He and his family had already been to a grocery store to stock up on water, canned goods, flashlights and batteries.
"After seeing what happened in Texas, and what they went through, we're trying to take all the precautions we can," Arsenault said in the parking lot. "I think the governor's made the right call considering what may happen. The idea of 170-mph winds scares the hell out of me."
Over in Wesley Chapel, a suburb of Tampa, a soldier-turned-lawyer, Gary de Pury, said he too believed in being prepared.
"There are hour-long lines at the Sam's Club here just for basics like water and fuel," De Pury said by phone. "With water already sold out and gas priced at $2.59 a gallon because of Hurricane Harvey, if you waited until today to prepare for Irma, it's already too late."
The northern Leeward Islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, were bracing for eight to 10 inches of rain along with storm surges and large breaking waves that officials warned could raise water levels by as much as seven to 11 feet above normal.
Irma was also forecast to bring four to 10 inches of rain to both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Meanwhile, the U.S. hurricane center said that a new tropical storm had formed over the central Atlantic on Tuesday. Tropical Storm Jose was expected to become a hurricane by Friday.
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