Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade, has hit the Caribbean, with officials warning of its “potentially catastrophic” effects.
The category five hurricane, the highest possible level, has sustained wind speeds reaching 300km/h (185mph).
It first hit Antigua and Barbuda, before moving on to Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin.
It is then expected to move on towards Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
In the US, Florida’s Key West area has ordered a mandatory evacuation.
The French government, which runs Saint Barthélemy, more commonly known as St Barts, and Saint Martin, has said it is worried about thousands of people who have refused to seek shelter.
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Major flooding has been caused in their low-lying areas, said the French weather office.
The eye of the storm first hit Barbuda, which has a population of around 2,000 people, at about 02:00 local time (06:00 GMT).
Winds gusted at 250km/h, before the recording equipment broke and no further readings were received.
“Early indications seem to show that Antigua has not been too badly hit, but we cannot say the same for Barbuda as we don’t yet know,” reported Antigua’s ABS radio.
The Antigua Observer said it had received initial reports of roofs being blown off on both islands.
There have also been concerns for St Kitts and Nevis. President Timothy Harris said on Twitter: “All of our national security agencies have been fully mobilised and are on the highest alert.”
Thousands of people have been evacuated from at-risk areas across the Caribbean. Residents have flocked to shops for food, water, and emergency supplies.
Airports have closed on several islands, which are popular holiday destinations, and authorities have urged people to go to public shelters.
The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Irma was moving at a speed of 24km/h (15mph), saying that the storm was “potentially catastrophic”.
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 islands’ populations range from about 2,000 each on Barbuda, Saba and Culebra, to 3.5 million in Puerto Rico.
Haiti, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the south-eastern Bahamas are on hurricane watch.
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