Irma became a very powerful Category 5 hurricane Tuesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm’s top sustained winds are now 185 mph, with gusts of up to 220 mph.
Hurricane warnings went up for Puerto Rico and many of the Leeward Islands at the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea as the “potentially catestrophic” storm plowed west through the Atlantic Ocean at about 14 mph, the center said.
President Donald Trump approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Tuesday evening.
A hurricane watch was issued for the Turks and Caicos Islands, for the southeastern Bahamas and from the north coast of Haiti to Le Mole St. Nicholas.
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Forecasters said they expect Irma to stay its westerly course through Tuesday, then veer slightly to the west-northwest Tuesday night.
In North Carolina, the National Weather Service said swells associated with Irma are likely along the coast and will build during the week.
Rip currents are likely and there may be beach erosion on the Outer Banks, forecasters said.
“Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Irma is forecast to remain a powerful Category 4 hurricane,” the hurricane center said in a morning update.
North Carolina officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper, encouraged residents to be ready as the state keeps an eye on Irma’s path.
“You can never be too prepared for an emergency,” Cooper said in a statement. “We know from Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Harvey that storm tracks can shift quickly and that’s why North Carolina isn’t waiting to get ready. These tropical systems can pack a powerful punch and those who are prepared ahead of time will fare better.”
NCDOT crews across the state were busy checking supplies and equipment for an Irma-related needs.
Search and rescue, swift-water rescue teams and others will be returning from Texas response efforts before the weekend to be ready to support storm response in North Carolina if needed, according to Cooper’s statement.
The hurricane’s projected path on Tuesday had it going along the northeast side of Cuba next weekend and then moving between Cuba and the tip of Florida.
The islands covered by the hurricane warning are: Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saba, St. Eustatius, and Sint Maarten, Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, British Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra.