Fresh off the back of the devastating Hurricane Harvey, the US is preparing for an even more dangerous storm – Hurricane Irma.
With wind speeds of 300 kilometers per hour (185 miles per hour), Irma now ranks as the most powerful hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. It is the second most powerful in the Atlantic basin, which includes the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico, behind Hurricane Allen in 1980 that hit the latter two with winds of 305 km/h (190 mph).
The storm has already made landfall on several islands including Barbuda, where people were told to seek urgent safety. “May God protect us all,” a statement from officials there said.
The category 5 hurricane is expected to make landfall in Florida over the weekend, where locals have already been told to evacuate. It will remain at least a category 4 storm over the next few days, but the danger it poses cannot be overstated.
“The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said, according to the Associated Press. The storm is expected to hit Puerto Rico later today, followed by the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba over the next few days, before hitting Florida as early as Saturday.
Although its pass through Florida is not certain, most of the state is expected to receive hurricane-force winds, intense rain, and storm surges. Irma may also reach the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
If Irma does hit Florida as a category 4 or higher, this will be the first time two such powerful storms have hit the US in the same season after Hurricane Harvey.
As the oceans warm due to climate change, they provide more fuel for hurricanes, which are intensified by warm water. Irma is currently over water that is 1°C (1.8°F) warmer than normal.
Another storm behind Irma, Tropical Storm Jose, is expected to develop into a category 2 hurricane in the coming days. It’s not expected to make landfall in the US, but it may brush the north-eastern Caribbean islands.
Irma is expected to drop about 45 centimeters (18 inches) of rain over some areas, and cause waves as high as 3.3 meters (11 feet). Some regions, including the south-eastern Bahamas, could even see waves of up to 6 meters (20 feet).
Residents of Puerto Rico may be without electricity for months after the storm. President Trump has declared an emergency there, which has not seen such a powerful storm since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, along with the US Virgin Islands and Florida.
“The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death,” said Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello. “This is an extremely dangerous storm.”