A Storm That Could 'Rewrite History': Irma Hits as Most Powerful Atlantic Hurricane Ever Recorded

Fueled by warm ocean waters and fulfilling some of the most ominous predictions from climate scientists who warned that powerful storms would occur with increasing frequency and intensity, a “ferocious” Hurricane Irma slammed into the islands of Barbuda and Antigua early Wednesday morning as the most powerful Category 5 hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

Irma’s landfall comes less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, devastated the Texas coast and the city of Houston, killing dozens of people and now estimated to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Irma had maximum sustained winds of 185 mph (295 kph) when it made landfall in Barbuda and is expected to remain at Category 4 or 5 strength as it pushes westward to the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba.

In Barbuda, reports the Associated Press, “the storm ripped the roof off the island’s police station forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community center that served as an official shelter.” Communications between islands had been knocked out as well and officials on the ground said it could be days before the extent of the damage is known. 

“Quite simply,” wrote Eric Holthaus for Grist overnight, “meteorologists never expected a storm like Irma. The storm appears to have exceeded (or is about to exceed) the maximum theoretical strength for a hurricane in its environment — an estimate based on current water temperature and other conditions.”

Those in the path of Irma, Holthaus wrote, “have never seen a storm this strong. A direct hit could rewrite history for entire islands. The storm packs a punch that’s stronger than Andrew or Katrina, two of the most notorious recent hurricanes. In Antigua, one of the islands in Irma’s direct path, the national meteorological service lapsed into prayer.”

A state of emergency has been declared in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Florida—where the storm could hit later this week. Despite various models, the ultimate path of the storm remains uncertain.