US braces for second hurricane as Irma pummels Caribbean

Trump declares state of emergency for Florida, US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

Footage shot by NASA shows hurricane Irma as it builds up to maximum sustained winds of 290km/h over the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Video: NASA

 

The United States was bracing itself for the second big hurricane to hit its Gulf of Mexico coast in two weeks, as swathes of the Caribbean were devastated by Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever recorded.

The category-five hurricane pummelled Caribbean islands on Wednesday, registering winds of close to 300km/h. After making landfall on the island of Barbuda in the early hours of Wednesday it continued on to Antigua and the French territories of St Martin and St Barts.

Many communication links were cut, making it difficult for authorities to ascertain the extent of the damage.

The French government said two people had been killed and the hurricane had destroyed buildings and caused major flooding. It said it would send three emergency teams, two from France and one from its Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe.

The eye of the hurricane was due to pass within 80km of the northern coast of Puerto Rico later in the day. The US territory, which has been burdened by debt in recent years, is home to about 3.7 million people.

Irma is expected to continue towards the Dominican Republican, Haiti and possibly Cuba before potentially swerving north towards southern Florida.

State of emergency

The US president, Donald Trump, declared a state of emergency for the state of Florida, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as terrified residents prepared to flee.

“Watching Hurricane closely,” Mr Trump tweeted. “My team, which has done, and is doing, such a good job in Texas, is already in Florida. No rest for the weary!”

A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for the Florida Keys, where schools and businesses have been shut. Grocery stores had run out of water and other supplies, and airports were due to shut on Wednesday night.

Thousands of residents were also fleeing the cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, in the southern corner of the United States’ southernmost state.

“This storm is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew,” Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, said, referring to the devastating storm that hit the state 25 years ago.

He warned people to obey the evacuation orders. “Do not sit and wait for the storm to come. It is extremely dangerous and deadly and will cause devastation. Get prepared right now.”

Meteorologists warned that it was impossible to predict the exact trajectory of the storm, although the power of Hurricane Irma was likely to be fuelled by hotter-than-usual temperatures in the region. Nonetheless, Irma is expected to make landfall in Florida late Friday or on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Jose, further east than Irma over the Atlantic, was upgraded to a hurricane on Wednesday, while Tropical Storm Katia formed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Harvey aftermath

As residents of Florida awaited Hurricane Irma, in Texas and Louisiana residents were still counting the costs of Hurricane Harvey. At least 60 people have died as a result of the storm that hit the region 10 days ago, and more than 100,000 homes are estimated to have been destroyed.

Tens of thousands of people remain in emergency shelters, hotels and temporary accommodation.

The US Congress, on its first full day back on Capitol Hill following the August recess, approved an aid package for Hurricane Harvey of about $7.85 billion, which Democrats successfully lobbied to link to a commitment to allow a short-term increase in the debt ceiling.

Congress had been facing a September 30th deadline to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a government shutdown, but Harvey has increased pressure on federal resources.

After President Trump unexpectedly sided with Democrats during a meeting of congressional leaders at the White House, the debt-ceiling deadline has now been effectively pushed back to December 30th.

“We essentially came to a deal, and I think the deal will be very good,” Mr Trump said after the meeting, although most Republicans were opposed to the move. “We’ve got all this devastation in Texas. We’ve got another unprecedented hurricane about to hit Florida. And they want to play politics with the debt ceiling?”

The speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, had said ahead of the meeting that the Democrats’ plan “will strand the aid that we need to bring to the victims of these storms”.