Hurricane Irma roared into the Caribbean with record-setting force early Wednesday, shaking people in their homes on the islands of Antigua and Barbuda on a path toward Puerto Rico and possibly Florida by the weekend.
Irma, which was the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded north of the Caribbean and east of the Gulf of Mexico, passed almost directly over the island of Barbuda, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Authorities in the small islands of the eastern Caribbean were still evaluating the situation at first light though there were widespread reports of flooding and downed trees. Antiguan police were waiting until the winds dropped before sending helicopters to check on damage reports of damage in Barbuda. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
"We are glad so far for the good news that we have had so far," Donald McPhail, executive director of the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority, said early Wednesday as he heard from employees around the region after hunkering down for the night at home in Antigua.
As the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda around 1:47 a.m., phone lines went down under heavy rain and howling winds that sent debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.
In Barbuda, the storm ripped the roof off the island's police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter. The Category 5 storm also knocked out communication between islands. Midcie Francis of the National Office of Disaster Services confirmed there was damage to several homes, but said it was too early to assess the extent of damage.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 185 mph (295 kph), according to the Hurricane Center. It said winds would likely fluctuate slightly, but the storm would remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two. The most dangerous winds, usually nearest to the eye, were forecast to pass near the northern Virgin Islands and near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday.