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'Irma' strengthens into Category 5 storm

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Hurricane Irma grew into a dangerous Category 5 storm—the most powerful seen in the Atlantic in more than a decade—and roared toward islands in the northeast Caribbean today on a path that eventually could take it to the United States.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma was a “potentially catastrophic” storm with maximum sustained winds of 180 m.p.h. (285 km/h) as it bore down on the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

It was centered about 365 km east of Antigua in the late morning and moving west at 14 m.p.h. (22 km/h).

The centre said there was a growing possibility the storm's effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track.

“Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place,” it warned.

Irma's centre was expected to move over portions of the northern Leeward Islands late today and early tomorrow, the hurricane centre said.

The eye then was expected to pass about 80 km from Puerto Rico late tomorrow.

Irma is the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Rita in 2005, officials said.

“Puerto Rico has not seen a hurricane of this magnitude in almost 100 years,” Carlos Anselmi, U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist in San Juan, told The Associated Press.

Authorities warned the storm could dump up to 12 inches (30 cm) of rain, cause landslides and flash floods, and generate waves of up to 23 feet (seven metres).

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 stressed.

“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 today.

Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were expecting four-10 inches (10-25 cm) of rain and winds of 40-50 m.p.h., with gusts of up to 75 m.p.h.

“This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane,” U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp warned.

“It's not time to get on a surfboard.”

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