Hurricane Irma strengthened to a Category 5 storm early Tuesday as it continues to pick up steam in the Atlantic, just east of a chain of islands in the Caribbean.
The National Hurricane Center said in latest advisory that the storm’s center is about 320 miles east of the Leeward Islands, the easternmost in the chain of Caribbean islands, and is packing maximum sustained winds of 175 mph. It’s moving almost due west at 14 mph.
Warnings of winds and storm surges have been issued for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The NHC projects that Irma could hit Puerto Rico by Wednesday evening, prompting Gov. Ricardo Rosello to issue a state of emergency for his island. Irma is forecast to hit the Dominican Republic on Thursday and Cuba by Friday.
If the storm continues to turn north, it could approach South Florida by Saturday and travel up Florida’s Gulf or Atlantic Coast.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday declared preemptive state of emergency for all 67 counties in the state to give residents time to prepare for what could be a major hurricane.
“In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best and while the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared,” Scott said in a statement. “This state of emergency allows our emergency management officials to act swiftly in the best interest of Floridians without the burden of bureaucracy or red tape.”
The emergency declaration includes activation of a price gouging hotline. State law prohibits extreme price increases of essential commodities, identified as hotel lodging, gasoline, food, water and ice.
The NHC also issued a hurricane warning for Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saba, St. Eustatius, and Maarten, Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, British Virgin Islands, Vieques and Culebra.
If Irma does make landfall in any U.S. territory, it will be the first time two Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the United States in a single year. Hurricane Harvey arrived in Texas on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 storm.
In 1992, a Category 4 and Category 5 made landfall in the United States, but not two Category 4s.
CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller calls Irma a “classic ” Cape Verde hurricane — one that becomes large and intense. Examples include Hugo, Floyd and Ivan.
“Irma will begin rounding the southwestern edge of the high soon, which will allow the hurricane to turn westward later today and then west-northwestward in 36-48 hours,” forecaster Robbie Berg said in a discussion. “Down the road, a large mid-latitude trough is expected to dig southward over the eastern United States during the next 72 hours, but the global models have been trending toward quickly lifting the trough out over New England and eastern Canada on days 4 and 5, with the subtropical ridge building westward toward Florida.”
Irma became the ninth named Atlantic storm of the season Wednesday, following Harvey.