Irma strengthens to Category 5 hurricane

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY/AP) — Irma strengthened into an “extremely dangerous” Category 5 hurricane Tuesday as it surged near the eastern Caribbean.

In its 11 p.m. update Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said the storm’s winds maintained 185 mph winds, with higher gusts. The storm was 50 miles east of Antigua, moving west at 15 mph.

Some fluctuations in Irma’s intensity were expected, but the hurricane center said the storm should remain a powerful Category 4 or 5 storms over the next couple of days.

The hurricane center tweeted Tuesday that Irma is the strongest hurricane outside of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

A hurricane warning was put in place for Antigua, Anguilla, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean Islands. Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands expected 4 inches to 10 inches of rain and winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of up to 75 mph.

Virginia Task Force 2 left from Virginia Beach to Puerto Rico, ahead of Irma’s arrival.

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Hurricane conditions were expected within the hurricane warning area in the Leeward Islands Tuesday night, with tropical storm conditions beginning within a couple of hours. Hurricane conditions were expected to begin within the hurricane warning area in the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday, with tropical storm conditions beginning Tuesday night.

Hurricane force winds were extending upwards of 50 miles from Irma’s center — with tropical storm-force winds as far out as 175 miles.

Most of the attention surrounding Irma has been focused on where the storm could hit. There is still a lot of uncertainty in that regard.

Irma was forecast to move somewhere between Cuba and the Bahamas by Thursday. Some of the computer models had Irma skirting Cuba altogether, while others have it heading right in its path.

Both the European and GFS (American) models had the storm taking an expected northward turn right around southern Florida. This could result in some indirect impacts on the Hampton Roads region.

Other models had the northward turn happening before Florida. One or two of the models went further west of Florida with this expected turn.

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Hurricane watches were in effect for the Turks and Caicos, Guadeloupe and parts of the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 12 inches of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet (7 meters). Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as shelves emptied out across islands including Puerto Rico.

“The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “This is an extremely dangerous storm.”

Hurricane warnings were issued for 12 Caribbean island groups including Antigua, where buzzing chainsaws and pounding hammers could be heard Tuesday. Crews delivered water to neighboring Barbuda, one of the islands closest to the hurricane’s path.

Irma is the ninth named storm of the 2017 season, and the fourth to form during the month of August. This also comes after Harvey brought catastrophic flooding to the Texas Gulf Coast region of the country.

A new tropical storm also formed in the Atlantic on Tuesday, to the east of Irma. The hurricane center said Tropical Storm Jose was about 1,505 miles east of the Lesser Antilles with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph. It was moving west-northwest at 13 mph and was expected to become a hurricane by Friday.

Stay with WAVY.com for continuing coverage of the tropics.