Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm — the most severe designation for a hurricane, the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday.
Irma is the largest hurricane ever recorded by the National Hurricane Center in the Atlantic Basin outside the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, the center said.
People in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean are preparing for Irma's arrival late Tuesday or early Wednesday, as areas to the northwest, from Puerto Rico and Cuba to the coastal United States, wait to see what track the storm will take as the week progresses.
The state of Florida has issued mandatory evacuations for the Florida Keys to begin Wednesday morning. Florida governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in the state, mobilizing 100 National Guard members to "support with planning, logistics and operations in preparation for potential impacts from Hurricane Irma," a statement from the governor said.
Hurricane Irma's Category 5 designation means sustained winds of more than 280 kilometers per hour will severely damage homes, uproot trees and power poles, and knock out power in affected areas for weeks.
"We are looking at Irma as a very significant event,'' Ronald Jackson, executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, said by phone. "I cannot recall a tropical cone developing that rapidly into a major hurricane prior to arriving in the central Caribbean.''
In addition to the wind damage, forecasters expect the storm to drop seven to 15 centimeters of rain across the northern Leeward Islands, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The rain could cause dangerous flash floods and mudslides.
Officials in Puerto Rico have declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in anticipation of Irma's expected arrival there by late Wednesday.
U.S. disaster management teams are dealing with the catastrophic damage of Hurricane Harvey, which was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall late last month in the state of Texas and dropped historic amounts of rain as it stalled over the region.