People living in the path of Hurricane Irma are preparing for the arrival of the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade.
The category-five hurricane – the highest possible level – has sustained wind speeds reaching 295km/h (185mph).
It is expected to hit the Caribbean Sea’s Leeward islands before moving on to Haiti and Florida.
Florida’s Key West area has ordered a mandatory evacuation beginning on Wednesday.
Visitors will be required to leave on Wednesday morning, with residents due to follow in the evening, and the international airport will halt all flights.
“We’re emphatically telling people you must evacuate. You cannot afford to stay on an island with a Category 5 hurricane coming at you,” said Martin Senterfitt, the emergency operations centre director in Monroe County.
Closer to the storm, thousands of people have been evacuated from at-risk areas. Residents have flocked to shops for food, water, and emergency supplies.
Storm surges, life-threatening winds and torrential rainfall are expected along the Leeward Islands.
Alison Strand, originally from Staffordshire in the UK, is on the island of Anguilla.
She said her family had spent the last several hours fortifying her home on the coast, which “will be the first house hit by the storm”.
“Our house is 5m (15ft) above sea level and we’re expecting 8m swells, so we’re just crossing our fingers,” she said. “We are expecting to lose our wooden roof.”
Predicted path of Hurricane Irma
Carolyne Coleby, in Montserrat, said: “Irma is about to hit us full force.”
“I am a goat farmer and have to consider my livestock. Last night I moved 20 goats to a backhouse at a hostel I manage which is on slightly higher ground,” she said. “I am hoping the galvanised roof of the backhouse doesn’t fly off.”
“I can’t go to the shelter because I can’t leave my animals.”
BBC Weather’s Stav Danos said the storm was “extremely dangerous” and expected to maintain its speed and power over the coming days.
The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Irma was moving at a speed of 24km/h (15mph), and there are hurricane warnings for:
- Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis
- Saba, St Eustatius and Sint Maarten
- Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy
- The British Virgin Islands
- The US Virgin Islands
- Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra
- Dominican Republic, for the northern region
The French island of Guadeloupe is on hurricane watch and Puerto Rico has declared a state of emergency.
The NHC warned the storm was “potentially catastrophic”.
Parts of Texas and Louisiana are dealing with the damage done by Hurricane Harvey in late August. But it is not yet clear what impact Hurricane Irma might have on the US mainland.
The mainland has not been hit by two category four hurricanes in one season since the storms were first recorded in 1851.
A third tropical storm, Jose, has formed further out in the Atlantic behind Irma, and is expected to become a hurricane later on in the week.