Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, has churned across northern Caribbean islands with a potentially catastrophic mix of fierce winds, surf and rain, en route to a possible Florida landfall.
Irma is expected to become the second powerful storm to thrash the US mainland in as many weeks, but its precise trajectory remains uncertain. Hurricane Harvey killed more than 60 people and caused damages estimated as high as $US180 billion (NZ$250 billion) when it hit Texas late last month.
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The eye of Irma, a Category 5 storm packing winds of 295km/h, moved away from the island of Barbuda and toward the island of St Martin, east of Puerto Rico, early on Wednesday, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) reported. It could hit Florida on Saturday.
Most people who were on Antigua and Barbuda were without power and about 1000 people were spending the night in shelters in Antigua, according to Burford.
"It's very scary... most of the islands are dark so it's a very, very frightening," he said.
The eye of the hurricane went over Barbuda, which has a population of about 1600 people, according to ABS radio.
"All hearts and all prayers and all minds go out to the Barbudans at this time because they experienced the full brunt," a radio host said on the station early on Wednesday. Public relations professional Alex Woolfall said on Twitter he was hiding underneath a concrete stairwell as the storm neared St Maarten.
"Still thunderous sonic boom noises outside and boiling in stairwell. Can feel [the] scream of things being hurled against building," he said. "Okay I am now pretty terrified so can every non-believer, atheist & heretic please pray for me."
The amount of damage and the number of casualties were not known early on Wednesday. A 75-year-old man died while preparing for the storm in Puerto Rico's central mountains, police said.
Several other Leeward Islands, including Anguilla, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, as well as the US and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were under a hurricane warning.
The NHC said Irma ranked as one of the five most powerful Atlantic hurricanes during the past 80 years and the strongest Atlantic basin storm ever outside the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello urged the 3.4 million residents of the US territory to seek refuge in one of 460 hurricane shelters in advance of the storm and later ordered police and National Guard troops to begin evacuations of flood-prone areas in the north and east of the island.
"This is something without precedent," Mr Rossello told a news conference.
US President Donald Trump approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, mobilising federal disaster relief efforts, the White House said.
Authorities in the Florida Keys called for a mandatory evacuation of visitors to start at sunrise on Wednesday, and public schools throughout South Florida were ordered closed.